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Does Your Organization Have an Honest Brand?

Posted by on January 30th, 2013
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Messaging   

It’s time for the nonprofit sector to recognize that branding is not just about what you say and how you look.

What you do is equally as important as what you say when it comes to communicating your brand to the world.

Being mindful of your brand and promoting its values in your communications, fundraising and amongst your staff is the daily practice of any savvy nonprofit. Because they know that when you’re clear on your brand, everything you say, everything you do and all the ways you act can powerfully reinforce your values – making them clear to your key audiences.

Clarity about what values are embodied in your work will help attract attention and loyalty.

That means that branding is not just the job of the marketing director (if you’re lucky enough to have one). It’s the job of the board because they make strategic decisions, and it’s the job of anyone in a leadership or program role who decides on strategic partnerships or programs.

You Are Known By the Company You Keep
Let’s take a look at the power of partnership in building a strong brand for your nonprofit. The organizations with whom you choose to align say plenty about the real values your organization holds. So being mindful of those partnerships is a mastery-level branding effort.

One example of partnership alignment that we love at Mission Minded is Breast Cancer Action. They are in business to find and eradicate the causes of breast cancer—and they believe that the only way to be effective is to choose partners who share their values. From their website:

“We don’t take a dime of corporate funding from companies that profit from or contribute to breast cancer. Our independence means we can always be a fierce advocate for women’s health. We count on your support. Please, make a tax-deductible donation to BCAction today.”

Since they don’t take a dime from companies that profit or contribute to breast cancer, that means that they do partner with and accept funding from businesses and foundations that share their outrage at the breast cancer epidemic.

Because Breast Cancer Action believes that many of the consumer products being sold today cause or contribute to breast cancer, they simply will not take money from those companies. And being so clear about their goal and the values they hold as they work to achieve their mission sends clear signals to supporters. A prospective donor can easily see that Breast Cancer Action is acting within its values, not just espousing one way and acting another.

Sounds simple, right?

It may be simple, but it clearly isn’t easy. The Susan G. Komen foundation also focuses exclusively on breast cancer. Yet they openly take donations from companies that many people believe contribute to causing the disease—from fast food restaurants to cosmetics companies. What message are they sending about their values? They clearly value something and that something could be perceived as fundraising success at any cost.

Both Breast Cancer Action and Susan G. Komen are successful in attracting donors to support their work. But based on the values each promotes they are surely attracting different kinds of donors. And that’s good. A clear brand makes it easy for the people who believe what you believe to find you.

Now, here’s an example from the for-profit world that shines a light on how quickly values are revealed by partnership actions.

Mark Bittman recently wrote for the New York Times about the misalignment between pop star Beyoncé Knowles’ words and her actions. She recently gave a generous donation and lent her name to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, saying that she was “excited to be part of this effort that addresses a public health crisis.” Nice. She wants to help stop childhood obesity, so she put her money and stardom where it could help.

And yet, in February, Beyoncé will also lend her name and face to a $50 million multi-media campaign promoting Pepsi, one of the primary contributors to the public health crisis that her donations to “Let’s Move” are aimed at addressing. For a fee that would make any nonprofit fundraiser blush, Beyoncé will be encouraging her fans to drink up, childhood obesity apparently no longer a concern.

Whether Beyoncé really cares about childhood obesity or whether the leaders of Susan G. Komen really want to cure breast cancer, the signals they’re sending is that they don’t. Not really.

Or maybe they do. It’s hard to tell since the signals are inconsistent. That makes it difficult to feel like we really know them, or that we can trust them. In the nonprofit sector, feeling a sense of trust is required before someone chooses to donate some of his money to your cause.

Take a look at your nonprofit and be honest about the public and private partnerships in which you engage.

Are you a health-focused organization that serves donuts at board meetings?

Do you believe in justice for the environment but take donations from companies that undermine that outcome?

Are you working on poverty alleviation as you partner with the banks that unfairly foreclosed on the homes of low-income people?

Aligning your values with your actions will do more for your brand than any compelling talking points or beautifully designed website.

A brand that’s strong is a brand that’s honest. Is yours?


Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one leadership coach.

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