Months ago an Agitator post applauded the Salvation Army in the face of a New York Times article probing whether the organization was losing its way.

Critics questioned whether it was appropriate for the Salvation Army to use proceeds of a $1.5 billion bequest from McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc to build community centers that offered water aerobics and ice skating as a way to engage the public. And organization leaders fretted over whether the very size and visibility of that gift would cause potential small donors to feel they weren't needed.

The Agitator thought the Salvation Army was on the right track. It was modernizing with the times.

But now an article in Forbes (registration required) on the Army's current marketing efforts makes me wonder.

The US head of the Salvation Army, an international evangelical mission, says: “There is an inadequate knowledge of who we are and what we are.” This from an organization that spent $2.8 billion in 2005 running rehab centers, shelters and meal services for the needy. The SA ran $19 million in TV ads in 2006, and it's using DonTrump celebrity golf, online banner ads, fashion shows and Times Square stunts to chase awareness.

All in all, the communications strategy appears to be “throw it at the wall and see what sticks.”

Gimmicks aside, a visit to the Salvation Army's website tells you a lot of what you need to know about why the organization might be a fading brand. Confusing, difficult to navigate, arcane in language, unemotional, devoid of engagement tools, pedestrian in describing its goals, approach and programs. One of the least compelling websites I've ever seen for a nonprofit focusing on meeting human needs.

A multi-billion dollar organization should be able to tell its story with overwhelming impact!

The Salvation Army is a becoming-classic case of an old-style organization that seems trapped in a “charity” mindset. That is, it believes people will keep supporting us because we're doing noble deeds and they'll feel a moral duty to respond.

Not any more. Those people will be dead soon, and new donors — even those strongly motivated by faith — speak a language of performance, results, personal empowerment and effectiveness.

I'm all for a brand freshening its make-up as the times change. And perhaps there's a strategy behind what appears to be merely thrashing about that the Forbes piece didn't communicate (but that's what I went to the SA website looking for, only to be disappointed).

Certainly the needs addressed by the Salvation Army are not fading away. Let's hope the organization can successfully renew itself and re-confirm its relevance for meeting those needs.


This article was posted in: Communications, Nonprofit branding, Nonprofit management.
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