Why Your Foundation Needs a Brand

Let’s face it. 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, there is an increasing realization from program staff and trustees that philanthropy isn’t only about granting money, it’s about impact.

For too long, impact has been measured only in dollars distributed, but for foundations impact should be measured in their ability to change society, influence legislation, accelerate business, and collaborate with peer organizations and foundations to inspire system-wide change. And that’s not to mention how foundations can change power dynamics and promote an anti-racist agenda through the ways in which they engage communities.

In other words, impact isn’t solely measured in the amount you distribute, but rather by the collective action you 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 John and Wauna Harman Foundation. The roughly $350,000 distributed annually by the foundation, while not insignificant, is a fraction of what some larger philanthropic players are able to grant. Yet, the foundation has been highly effective at drawing attention to end of life care and leveraging other donor dollars through support of a documentary film about Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal.” The foundation has positioned itself as being exclusively dedicated to end of life care, and consequently, they are seen as not just funders, but leaders in the 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 has focused its brand almost exclusively on a single idea.

A strong brand, then, can provide six key benefits to your foundation:

1. 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 affect 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

2. A solid stage to amplify the voice and work of others. An investment in your brand gives you a greater platform from which to share your power and provide a stage for other voices to be heard.

3. 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.”

4. It increases the importance placed on foundation priority areas. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.