Your organization already has a brand, whether or not you’ve invested in a formal branding process. Your brand isn’t your logo, and it isn’t your mission statement either. It’s the set of thoughts and emotions that come to the mind of your audiences when they read about your work or think about your organization.
So what do these people really think of your organization? Do they think of it at all?
When they hear your name do they have a fuzzy idea about what you do and why it matters? Or are your value and impact crystal clear? Do they confuse you with a similar organization or do they understand the important things that make you different? How does interacting with you make them feel about themselves?
You can do a lot to influence how your organization is perceived. It doesn’t require a huge budget and it doesn’t involve trickery or pretending to be something you’re not. It’s just the opposite. The clearer you can be about what your organization stands for—and why that matters—the better chance you have of securing the support you need to get your work done. But is making the effort worth it?
Creating a brand isn’t just for big national organizations. Every nonprofit of every size—including yours—has a brand already. Investing in making it one that actually helps you reach your goals pays dividends. It’s the difference between running against the wind and having it at your back, propelling you forward.
Here are 5 benefits your organization will gain with a strong brand.
1. Minimize competitive threats. It may feel uncomfortable to think of competing in the nonprofit sector. After all, every organization is trying to do something good in the world, so why frame others as the enemy? The reality is that your supporters have choices—lots of choices—about which organizations to bolster. And they aren’t limited to the organizations that are obviously similar to yours.
If you’re a low-income housing provider, your supporters aren’t just considering other providers of housing for poor people. They are comparing you to each and every solicitation they receive from other nonprofits.
So you’ll find yourself competing with environmental, educational, and children’s welfare organizations, as well as hundreds of others. And when your brand stands for something clear, powerful, and valuable, it’s easier for you to stand out in that crowd of worthy nonprofits. A clear, strong brand is a gift to your would-be supporters because it saves them valuable time and attention. Rather than wondering whether your organization is the best choice, they know it intuitively, because your brand has consistently sent them strong, positive signals that allow them to trust you above others.
2. Defend against negative news. If you’re a large organization with a big staff and hundreds of volunteers, it may come to pass that you get some negative press someday. This is true especially if your mission has detractors who actively search for ways to make you look shady.
Remember ACORN? As victims of a sting mounted by conservative activists, they were accused of illegal activities surrounding use of public funds. Though ACORN was later cleared of any wrongdoing, their financial support disappeared virtually overnight and they had to end operations after 40 years.
Compare that to the outcome of the sting staged by the same conservative activists against NPR, in which the activists manipulated a taped interview of NPR’s head fundraiser. In the doctored interview, he appeared to make disparaging remarks against both the politically conservative Tea Party and federal funding of NPR. (Both statements were later found to have been rigged through editing.) This story was in and out of the public eye within 48 hours. The news media covered the story, but the negativity didn’t stick to this well-respected public media organization.
Why did NPR survive while ACORN withered? Because of a strong brand. Most Americans were first introduced to ACORN because of the negative publicity. NPR is a household name, with mostly positive connotations, even for people who don’t listen to public radio.
When people heard something negative about ACORN, it was easy to believe it, but hearing something negative about NPR was much harder to reconcile. That someone from NPR would make such statements simply wasn’t in keeping with the reputation it already enjoyed for being honorable. It was easy to dismiss the negativity as inaccurate. Even among those who might have thought the NPR sting story was true, it was easier to overlook as a forgivable outlier, since it didn’t jibe with their sense of NPR.
Negative news doesn’t have to be national media. It could come in the form of a mail house mishap that leaves your annual appeal letter without a salutation, a “miss” in your performing arts line up, or a website typo in which you refer to patients instead of parents.
When your organization sends consistently positive signals through your word choice, appearance, and actions, the occasional slip-up is more likely to be overlooked by your supporters. It’s just as you feel about your good friends: one quality that bothers you isn’t enough to end the relationship. You overlook the bad stuff and focus on the good.
3. Enhance the self-image of your supporters. Each of us likes to associate with brands that make us feel good about ourselves and that send a positive signal to the world about who we are. That’s why people proudly tote their PBS bag to the farmers market and sip coffee from their Sierra Club coffee mug. If you stand for something clear, powerful, and strong, like-minded people can easily find you. And when they feel good about being part of your work, they proudly promote you to their own networks.
4. Help staff and volunteers know how to be their best for you. With a clearly defined brand, everyone who works or volunteers for your organization understands what he or she can do to embody your brand every day. They keep it alive and in reach for all your supporters.
The brand promise for our client Curious Theatre is No guts, no story. You can imagine how everyone from the ticket-takers to the head of the board use this as a guideline about how to do their best work.
This theater is serious about artistic risk-taking. And the effort they spent creating a brand promise that acts as a rallying cry for staff and volunteers pays off. Everyone knows how to bring No guts, no story alive for donors and theatre-goers. No guts, no story is the driving idea behind everything from their choice of plays to the donor appeals to the season ticket brochure’s design.
Shared expertise to end domestic violence in California is the brand promise of California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. The emphasis on shared expertise reminds internal stakeholders that they draw power from leveraging the knowledge of everyone in the partnership. It confirms that together, they’re stronger in the fight to end domestic violence.
This brand promise impacts how the small staff talks, writes, and presents themselves. It impacts how The Partnership’s member base of small domestic violence nonprofits interacts with The Partnership. And when they’re all in sync, they signal their expertise and power to the legislators who make laws that help end domestic violence.
5. Attract and retain great staff. We tend to think of financial donors, volunteers, and program participants as the brass ring—the prize for effective branding and strong communications. But there is another stakeholder group for whom the strength of your brand matters: paid and volunteer staff.
No matter what the economic conditions, job seekers will always choose their employer based on a matrix of information that includes how proud they’ll feel to tell their friends and family where they work. Having a brand that powerfully conveys a big, appealing idea will help you attract the best and the brightest—and will help you retain them when another organization tries to lure them away.
Clarity around brand is the cornerstone of effective communications; a clear brand provides the guide for shaping the messages and activities of your organization. Knowing your brand will help you tell the story of your work in a clear and compelling way that sets you apart. What benefits has your organization seen as a result of having a strong brand?
About the Author
Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded and a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding and positioning nonprofit organizations.
See all posts by Jennie Winton