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Brand Reputation

Charity and Brand Reputation

April 20, 2010

Charity and Brand Reputation
According to the Charity Commission, there are 179,320 registered charities in England and Wales, with a combined income of £51,500,000,000. Charity is big business, and as with all business, it pays to be mindful of the importance of brand reputation. 

Whether you are shopping on a personal level or making a larger scale commercial purchase on behalf of your own company, your choice of which company will get your business will be based in part on its reputation.  Quality of service, delivery of product, and customer interaction all go to create the collective impression left by the experience of the company.  This shapes its brand reputation and ultimately the decision about where you spend your money.

But what of a charity? Many charities rely heavily on funding from public sources, including donations from the general public. However unlike a traditional business, the people donating their money to the charity will not be the same people receiving the charity’s products or services.

For example someone in the UK donating to a Red Cross project in Africa will most likely have no first hand experience of the way in which their donation is spent – the donator doesn’t get to ‘experience’ the business first hand. The overall impression of the charity therefore is shaped as much by its reputation as by the donator’s own personal interaction with the charity.

This means that while reputation and brand is important for all businesses, for a charity reputation and brand is paramount, as in many cases that’s the only way the potential donor can make a decision about which charity to patronise.

Therefore transparency and a clear mission statement are vital for any charity, whether it’s a large multinational or a new startup organisation. A potential donor or volunteer for a charity needs to know clearly what the aims of the charity are, who they support, and what kind of work their donation of time or money will support.

A charity must have a clear and identifiable brand presence, and just as importantly an awareness of the issues that go along with developing that brand presence, if they hope to engage with the public and secure their support.

Trade mark issues
If the charity is about to be launched, name clearance through a trade mark search is important. You need to check whether any identical or similar existing brands are already registered. Charities may want to also look out for similar brand names held by non competing businesses with associations that are contrary to the charity’s aims.

As people identify the brand with the charity’s cause the goodwill generated becomes a valuable way to promote the cause. Charity brands are particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous third parties who may try to take advantage of the brand’s social purpose, special meaning and credibility, and the trust that the public places in it.

Registering a trade mark is the most effective protection for enforcing the charity’s rights when marketplace confusion between a charity’s logo or name and that of another organisation is found.   For example, it is cost-effective in domain recovery disputes.  Otherwise, it is necessary to include evidence that the charity has goodwill in the name.

Some Charity Brand Disputes
In August 2007 the Red Cross was sued by Johnson & Johnson, with Johnson & Johnson claiming that the organisation’s use of the Red Cross symbol on products sold in stores violated a previous agreement between Johnson & Johnson and the charity. The agreement had allowed Johnson & Johnson to use the ‘red cross symbol’ commercially on items like Band-Aids while the Red Cross could use it as a symbol for their humanitarian efforts.

However in 2004, the Red Cross licensed the ‘Red Cross symbol’ for other companies to use on commercially available items to help raise funds for the charity. Ultimately it was decided that a congressional charter gave the Red Cross the right to use the symbol even for business purposes.

Conversely, sometimes charities engage in legal action against commercial operations. In 2000, the charity World Wide Fund for Nature sued the World Wrestling Federation, both of whom used the initials WWF to identify their respective organisations. The courts agreed that with the World Wide Fund for Nature that the wrestling organisation had broken a 1994 agreement which restricted use of the WWF initials overseas, especially as it related to saleable merchandise.
The wrestling company changed its name to ‘World Wrestling Entertainment, altered it’s domain to and developed a different branded symbol to reflect the change of name.

Online confusion
For a charity, whose potential donations depend on a donor’s ability to find clear information about the charity and its aims, a simple and identifiable online presence is crucial. Helpfully the .org domain designation is a top level domain primarily used to identify the websites of charitable or non profit organisations. Unfortunately this need can be exploited by unscrupulous individuals who may purchase a .org web address to direct traffic to their own, distinctly non-charitable organisations.

In 2002 people trying to access what they assumed were the web address for the British Heart Foundation and the National Deaf Children’s Society where redirected to pornographic websites with very similar web addresses. In the case of the National Deaf Children’s Society, they had registered, while the domain had been registered by the owners of the ‘Nude Dames Chat Sex’ website. The owner of the domain subsequently asked for payment from the charity to release the domain name, leading to allegations of extortion.

The disputes resolution panel of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) in Geneva found the owner of had intentionally purchased a domain name similar to that of the charity with the intention of making money, and found in favour of the National Deaf Children’s Society.

This was in 2002, and since then many charities have become aware of the potential risks of cybersquatters taking similar web addresses and reacted accordingly. For example the charity Age Concern advertises it’s website as ‘’, however the charity also owns the variations ‘’ and ‘’, both of which redirect to the primary Age Concern website. Not only does this assist surfers who may accidentally put in the incorrect address, but it also locks out those people who might try and purchase the addresses for nefarious purposes.  However, the most cost effect protection against cybersquatters is a distinctive brand name that is trade marked.

Fake charity sites
Online support is crucial for charities, but so is an awareness of potential scams and the steps needed to ensure your potential donors come through to your authentic website, and not an imitative website setup by scammers.

When a disaster hits, many people who may not ordinarily donate to charity look for ways to help. Unfortunately this swell of support is seen as an opportunity by scammers who will look to setup fraudulent charitable websites to solicit donations and profit.

During the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, it was estimated that 4,000 false donation Web sites has been setup online. While savvy surfers will stick to donating to known charities, there is still the potential for many people to see their goodwill and desire to help exploited.

With the recent tragic events in Haiti, there are concerns that scammers will strike again, with the FBI distributing a press release stating ‘Internet users who receive appeals to donate money in the aftermath of Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti [should] apply a critical eye and do their due diligence before responding to those requests.

“Past tragedies and natural disasters have prompted individuals with criminal intent to solicit contributions purportedly for a charitable organization and/or a good cause.”

Similarly the rise in popularity of social networking technologies has also resulted in some scams whereby people are encouraged to donate to seemingly genuine charities which will then post or ‘tweet’ a message about that person’s donation. The eagerness to have that information posted to an individual’s twitter profile for example means people may accidentally contribute to a fraudulent or fake charity.

For this reason it’s recommended people donating via social networking sites like Twitter ensure that the ‘charity’ has been verified by the social networking site. Twitter has a ‘verified account feature’ for users who may otherwise be the potential victim of impersonators. That means Twitter has been in contact with the person or entity the account is representing and verified that it is approved.

The big picture
While a charity should never lose its focus on its core objectives of delivering on its charitable missions, it’s also important to be aware of the importance of reputation, and the potential risks, both online and offline.

Being aware of any potential trade mark pitfalls, maintaining a strong web presence and taking steps like ensuring social networking accounts are authenticated or verified can go a long way to ensuring the strength and security of the charities brand reputation.

A strong protected brand allows the public to feel safe and satisfied that their support, whether it be via volunteering or donations, will be utilised correctly and help those most in need.