Building a Brand for a Nonprofit
Author: Dan Craddock
August 28, 2017
Developing a brand for a nonprofit is one of the harder tasks in the design world. As well as the nonprofit world. It’s not just about deciding what your company voice is and creating that atmosphere with logos, colors, deliverables, and social media. With the standard commercial brand we can manipulate those things with smart design and strong concepts. You can lead your customer in the direction that you want. With a nonprofit, the work you do is what determines that atmosphere. Your program has to create the emotion, create the connection, and set the standards that will determine if your audience receives you well.
You can create a short video clip like we did for Dave’s Dogs that explains the work they do and helps with the emotional connection.
But without Dave’s Dogs actually doing that work ahead of time, it would be an irrelevant message. This is the struggle for branding a nonprofit. The organization has to do the prep-work ahead of time. They have to establish the voice and identity of what they have to offer society in order to then accent the accomplishment with a keen logo and design work.
Of course, you need resources to get the message out, and you need the brand to generate the resources. So really, the program could be circling the drain early on. Just trying to move fast enough to get back out of the suck. I’m going to use a guideline that was wonderfully put together by NPQ (Nonprofit Quarterly) to help establish a a bit of a plan that could help.
These are the Building Blocks of Strong Nonprofit Branding.
- Clear Impact Claim
The starting point for a strong brand is having a clear intended impact. It is hard to imagine having a strong brand that is not anchored in a social impact objective that is broadly accepted, consistently relevant, and compelling to multiple audiences. All the clever positioning and communication in the world will not help a nonprofit that is unclear about its objectives and why they should matter to others.
- Recognized Leadership
Having a big-name CEO in the nonprofit sector is one of the best ways to build a brand. Few nonprofit CEOs possess widespread name recognition. Having a leader whose name is readily associated with excellence is a way to quickly build brand recognition and credibility. Charisma helps a lot, as well. If the leader writes articles, gives speeches, and is seen as an important voice or thought leader in the field, the organization will reap many benefits in terms of brand recognition.
- Impressive Funders
Winning at the grant game is also a signal moment in the process of building a brand. It is no wonder that many organizations list their funders prominently on their websites, hoping the glow of monied influencers will convince stakeholders that something important is going on inside the nonprofit. Getting a grant from the Gates Foundation, for example, is a significant event in building a nonprofit brand. If one can claim to have passed the vetting process of influential funders, other donors and peer organizations will take note.
- Influential Partner Organizations
The company a nonprofit keeps is important. Working with other nonprofit organizations that have big brands can build the reputation, visibility, and brand of the smaller, less well-known organization. Most nonprofits think about interorganizational collaboration as a way of mobilizing new operational capacity to accomplish program goals more effectively; partnering is also a great way to build a nonprofit brand if the partner organization has the glow of a great and recognized brand.
- Effective Communications
The story a nonprofit tells about its work can be more important than the work itself—at least when it comes to building a brand. In the past, a great annual report was a valuable sell document. Today, a well-designed website is the coin of the realm when it comes to building a brand. Not only is it often a nonprofit’s first point of contact with its stakeholders, it’s also where the organization controls how its story is told. Since almost no one challenges the content of organizational web pages, it is the place where a nonprofit can describe its work however it sees fit and however it believes will register best with visitors.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery. If a nonprofit can show that others are replicating its work, this can be a profound brand builder. Many nonprofits operate for long periods of time in obscurity and isolation. Having others pay attention to a nonprofit’s work, believe in it, and replicate it are significant signals that something notable is going on in the organization.
- Organizational Age
Of all the ways that nonprofit brands are built, one is the least complicated and sophisticated: just hanging around over the years. If a nonprofit can survive for decades and keep out of trouble, it will be rewarded with some brand-recognition returns. The failure rate in the nonprofit sector is high, and the number of new organizations started each year is huge. As a result, simple staying power will contribute to a brand, regardless of all other considerations. There is also a sense that the sector is competitive enough that any organization that survives must have something on the ball, and this translates into brand recognition.
- Budget Size
Of all the annoying injustices of the nonprofit sector, none is as galling as the iron law of budget size. The larger the resources an organization is able to mobilize, the more it is seen as legitimate. Bigger budgets are rarely thought to be a function of caprice but rather the result of real market forces working themselves out to reward some organizations by directing more resources to them. Bigger budgets also convey a sense of permanence and relevance—rightly or wrongly.
I think the most important thing a nonprofit can do to lay the foundation of a brand aside from making use of the above steps is to do things that are good. Good for people, good for community, good for strangers, and good to the ones you know and love. Building that support from the ground up can fill your sails and really create the momentum needed to grow your program. If there’s anything we at Metro Nova Creative can do, please don’t hesitate to ask. We love working with nonprofits and making sure you get the best product available to fit your budget size (like from number 8 in the list).