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How to Screen Funding Partnerships for Brand Risk

Posted by on February 17th, 2021
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding   

At Mission Minded, we’ve helped hundreds of nonprofits gain clarity around their brand—or reputation. With a strengthened brand, many of these organizations are soon able to amplify the good they do in the world.

But besides all the positive things that your brand can help you achieve, it can also help you deal with some really uncomfortable parts of your work.

What are we talking about?

Have a look at this captivating blog piece that talked about how some hospitals around the country were putting their top funders at the head of the appointment line for COVID-19 vaccinations instead of the people that needed them most.

Is this kind of decision ever okay?

The answer lies in your brand. If your brand is about serving everyone in your community, but your actions make it clear that you take care of your funders better than the people who walk through your doors every day, you either have to reevaluate your brand or reevaluate your actions based on your brand.

And that’s what your brand should do: act as a filter to help you understand how you should act and what choices you should make—not just in easy cases, but the difficult ones, too.

So, what might some of these difficult decisions look like? Let’s dive into two examples:

Without adequate funding, nonprofits would not be able to function. But does that mean you’re willing to accept donations regardless of where they come from? What are the tradeoffs?

When it came to light that the Sackler family had played a large role in the current opioid crisis, nonprofits around the world had to ask themselves, “Can we keep accepting donations from them?”

It was a bumpy road for the many organizations who received millions of dollars from the Sackler family every year. On the one hand, these donations created jobs, funded programs, and helped advance organizational missions. But on the other, these funds could be seen as a form of blood money, considering the immense suffering that the Sackler’s pharmaceutical company had caused.

This may seem like a straightforward choice for those of us who are on the outside looking in, but it’s a complicated, painful one for the people inside, who will have to deal with the direct consequences—good and bad—that their decision may bring.

The way that many of these organizations came to a decision was to remind themselves of who they were and why they did what they did. In other words, they focused on their brand, asking themselves whether their reputation would be elevated or tarnished by accepting money from the Sackler family.

Would their audiences—staff, patrons, partners, and even other donors, who believe in their organizational values—continue to support them? By listening to their audiences (including the protesters) and putting their brands at the front and center of their decision-making processes, organizations like the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Tate Galleries in the UK concluded that they could no longer accept donations from the Sackler family.

Were these difficult decisions? Absolutely. But they will serve these organizations’ brands for generations to come.

Your organization may be committed to advancing social missions, like anti-racist policies, food justice, or equitable healthcare, but are your actions as an organization aligned with your brand both internally and externally?

Remember those hospitals who put their donors before their patients when it came to Covid-19 vaccinations? Disturbing, right? But why? The answer is cognitive dissonance. We know that the reason these hospitals exist is because of their commitment to help their patients heal. But when an organization acts in a way that goes against the core of their supposed values, we may feel outraged, betrayed, or even disgusted. Ultimately, it means that their constituents will start losing faith in them and their brand.

By now, you may be wondering if there is something that you need to evaluate through your own brand lens.

To get you started, here are some examples for you and your team to reflect on:

Picture this: you’re an organization whose mission includes advancing anti-racist policies. But you have a staff member who, though they bring a lot of value to your team, has also made some of your black and brown employees feel disempowered. How would you address that issue? Would you invest in training resources to ensure that your team is truly inclusive, or would you hope the problem resolves itself? And if it’s the latter, would that be a disservice to who you are and what you stand for as an organization?

What if your focus is on food justice, but you serve junk food at your internal meetings or community events? Are you truly living up to your brand?

If you’re known for helping your constituents break free from the cycle of poverty, but you pay your employees a non-living wage, is this acceptable as long as you’re helping the larger community? What kind of plan can you implement that will ensure you’re truly living your brand inside and out?

We hope these scenarios spark some internal reflection and discussion about the power of your brand and how it can truly help your organization move forward.

And remember—there’s rarely a quick and easy answer for the situations your organization may face. But by examining them through the lens of your distinctive brand, you’ll find the decision-making process to be that much smoother.

For more food for thought, check out the following blog posts:

13 Reasons Your Nonprofit Might Need to Update Its Brand

In Uncertain Times, Lean into your Brand

The 6 Most Important Steps in Nonprofit Branding

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Lean into Their Values


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