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Why Your Foundation Needs a Brand

Posted by on February 27th, 2014
Posted in Blog    Tags: , ,

I wrote this post four years ago and it’s just as important today for foundations to have a clear, strong brand, as it was then. Read on to reap the benefits of how your brand can enhance the impact of your work.

-Zach Hochstadt


Let’s face it. Private foundations don’t have the same reasons as other nonprofits do to build a strong brand. Foundations already have money. What does it matter what anyone thinks about them?

Plenty, it turns out.

Recently, one of our clients, who serves as the head of a family foundation, said to me, “Grantmaking is the consequence of leadership and vision.” That is, grantmaking is the final punctuation of a much longer sentence. Once upon a time, foundations considered their primary role to be the distribution of philanthropic dollars—and there are plenty who still do. Yet, increasingly, savvy program staff and trustees recognize that philanthropy isn’t only about granting money, it’s about impact.

In Do More Than Give: The 6 Practices of Donors Who Change the World, authors Leslie Crutchfield, John Kania, and Mark Kramer use the term “catalytic philanthropy” to describe high impact donor activity. In their view, catalytic donors change society, influence legislation, accelerate business, and collaborate with peer organizations and foundations to inspire system-wide change. In other words, catalytic donors’ impact isn’t driven by the amount they give, but rather by the collective action they instigate.

A foundation’s brand is an essential ingredient to bringing about that change because a foundation’s influence can greatly outsize the dollar amount of its endowment.

Consider the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation. The $1 million distributed annually by the foundation, while not insignificant, is a fraction of what some of Colorado’s larger philanthropic players are able to grant. Yet, the foundation has been highly effective at leveraging other donor dollars and influencing Colorado’s education reform agenda. The foundation has positioned itself as being exclusively dedicated to education reform in Colorado and, consequently, they are seen as not just funders, but as an important voice in the public education reform conversation. The reputation—or brand—of the foundation has played a key role in their ability to connect with and influence others because the foundation is known for one thing and one thing only: changing the face of education in Colorado.

A strong brand, then, can provide five key benefits to your foundation.

  • It expands your sphere of influence beyond the value of the grant. With a strong brand, foundation staff and trustees are invited to participate in broader conversations that may effect public policy, regional grantmaking initiatives, and multi-funder collaboratives. A move by your well-branded foundation may also influence other foundations to take similar steps. A foundation with a strong brand is able to turn allies into advocates and create new unofficial spokespeople for your theory of change.
  • It enhances the brand of your grantees. Investing in your foundation’s brand is a way of investing in your grantees. A grant from a well-regarded foundation can be a signal to other funders of an organization’s trustworthiness and promise. Your brand becomes a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
  • It increases the importance placed on foundation priority areas. Remember the old commercial that said, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” A strong brand means people will listen to what you do. But they don’t just listen. They extend the conversation, sharing your point of view and advancing your mission.
  • It streamlines decision-making. A foundation that knows its brand makes on-brand grantmaking decisions. Clarity around your brand helps your trustees make good decisions on your behalf and champion your work to the outside world.
  • It limits the number of off-strategy inquiries. It’s a common joke amongst foundation staff when it comes to communication goals: “How can we communicate the message that we don’t want people to call us asking for money?” Whether stated in jest or not, one of the benefits of a clear brand is that your foundation will receive fewer calls from organizations asking for grants well outside your giving priorities.

Are there more? What are some of the ways your foundation has benefited from a strong brand?


Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.

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