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28 JUN. 2017

Brand Building for Nonprofits: Harnessing a Strong Brand to Drive Social Impact

Denise Sabet and Susan Moon

Managing Director North America and Brand Strategist at Labbrand New York

The importance of branding has long been recognized in the nonprofit realm, and we’ve seen strong nonprofit brands such as the YMCA and Save the Children achieve awareness levels rivaling for-profit giants such as Coca-Cola or Samsung. Yet, in the case of nonprofits, the objective is not business revenue but rather fundraising, both immediate and sustained over the long term, as well as social impact and increased effectiveness in achieving that impact. The metrics for a nonprofit to measure its branding efforts also differ from businesses, such as water wells created, children treated, high schoolers graduated, and more.

When nonprofits have a strong brand they benefit from employer branding and organizational cohesiveness as well. They better attract, retain, and align talent towards a shared vision or purpose. When it comes to Millennials in particular, for-profit and nonprofit companies are competing in the same market for talent. A strong brand will also allow nonprofits to build stronger partnerships and alliances throughout their networks. What makes a strong non-profit brand? 

Building Blocks of Strong Nonprofit Brands

Let’s take a closer look at the core elements comprising a strong nonprofit brand:

1. A Clear Vision: A nonprofit needs to have a clear purpose for why it exists and what it wants to achieve in the world. If the vision is unclear, it will be challenging to build a strong brand, and the impacts will also be felt operationally. Attracting donations, volunteers, employees, and managing publicity will prove difficult without a clearly articulated vision.

2. A Distinctive Identity: Brand identity includes both verbal and visual elements: the name, the logo, the visual identity system such as colors, typography, icons, photography, user interfaces, and more. A nonprofit needs a strong identity to stand out and be easily recognized and remembered. A brand’s identity also needs to be well-aligned with the desired outcomes that a nonprofit has set out to create pathways toward, also know as their theory of change. A challenge of the World Wildlife Federation,for example, is that its acronym WWF is sometimes confused with the World Wrestling Federation, and the brand’s visual mark of a panda inadvertently causes people to perceive their work as centered on pandas only, which is not the case.

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3. Consistency: Consistency is needed when applying your identity and messaging across touch points and channels. Lack of consistency will dilute understanding of your nonprofit and harm brand recognition.

4. Collaborative spirit: Nonprofits should aim to share knowledge and brand cooperatively, in efforts to collectively make steps toward a shared mission. Nonprofits benefit when they take the approach of strengthening their network as a constellation, rather than trying to be the only bright shining star. 

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5. Knowledge sharing: The nonprofit brands that democratize philanthropy are those that involve people at all levels, share tools and best practices that are developed through experience in the field and measured successes. In turn, the nonprofits that produce shareable tools that they’ve created based on both their failures and successes gain a loyal following from their beneficiaries, donors, and practitioners alike. 

Unleashing the Power of Your Nonprofit Brand

When the building blocks of a strong brand are in place, a nonprofit can then position itself to leverage their brand across touchpoints, for example:

  • Leverage the brand in communication: When possible, the brand identity should be interwoven across the website, social media, content creation, conference presentations, and beyond. Always start with the vision/theory of change, and demonstrate impact.
  • Leverage the brand in talent management: Recruit, retain, and align the talent the nonprofit needs in order to achieve their vision.
  • Leverage the brand in attracting donations and support: A strong nonprofit brand attracts, sustains, and grows donations and grants.
  • Leverage co-branding and brand partnerships for greater effectiveness: Some examples include RED & Gap, or Charity:water and Macallan whiskey, or MANA and Good Spread peanut butter.
  • Leverage stories: Storytelling through the voice of your constituents amplifies your brand. Take Apple – just as they use beautiful photos on billboards and magazine spreads taken by iPhone users to speak on their behalf, allow the stories of your donors and constituents to speak for your brand.

The Outcomes of a Strong Non-Profit Brand

Once the brand is established and implemented, the benefits for the nonprofit organization and its work are many, such as the following:

  • Awareness: When your nonprofit brand is publicly known, your organization will be top-of-mind for donors or other collaborators to contact when aiming to support or engage with a particular cause.
  • Credibility: A strong brand for a nonprofit translates to greater credibility in the minds of stakeholders. Credibility breaks down barriers of understanding or skepticism around the activities of the organization, and ideally leads to greater willingness around collaboration and donations.
  • Engaged and sustained talent: A strong brand will make people want to work with you, making talent management easier and more effective.
  • Donor and Grant Appeal: Attract donors and funding, and sustain donations over time (more donors, also higher contributions). If you have a strong brand that is recognized for its impact with regards to its cause, there will be fewer barriers for attracting, sustaining and growing funds.
  • Alignment around a shared vision: When you have a strong brand, articulated into a brand platform or a brand book for internal use, your organization is greater equipped for efficiency in discussions surrounding strategy, impact measurement, donor management, marketing, HR, and other fields of endeavor. The brand clarifies the raison d’être, which serves as a compass for employees within the organization, and ultimately leads to greater organizational effectiveness and impact in the nonprofit’s activities.

Do’s and Don’ts for Nonprofit Organization Rebranding and Communication

When it comes to rebranding, nonprofits are best to play it safe to avoid losing existing awareness and equity.

Do:

  • Lead the rebrand with a vision, and for the purpose of staying relevant. (It should not just be for the sake of rebranding to look good or to attract publicity). Example: when the YMCA rebranded to the Y.
  • Take into account input from collaborators, employees, and partners to discover the direction for a rebrand. Gather feedback and incorporate resounding themes into the rebranding efforts.
  • Test the rebrand through quantitative or qualitative research before launching it with key stakeholders. 

Don't:

  • Steer towards dramatic changes, to avoid losing recognition or diluting the brand building efforts previously made.
  • Use heavily academic or jargon-filled communication. Simple is best – it ensures approachability and relevance.
  • Use unfocused or long-winded mission statements.

Conclusion

The power of branding for nonprofits is not limited to merely a tool for fundraising, but is relevant for any organization that wants to take a strategic approach towards achieving social impact. A strong brand translates to deeper trust and credibility among an external audience, as well as greater organizational cohesiveness internally. Bridging the gap between internal stakeholder understanding and external stakeholder perceptions around a nonprofit’s theory of change is achieved through meaningful brand actions. Nonprofits that are able to distinguish themselves through branding will continue to climb the ranks, even among their for-profit counterparts.

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