Nonprofit branding 101

Nonprofit branding 101

Last year researchers from Harvard’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations published a study on the role of branding in the nonprofit sector. Their conclusions underscore my industry experience: nonprofit leaders are often skeptical about the importance of branding—and they miss out on a huge strategic marketing opportunity because of it.

Nonprofits work in the same environment as businesses and face the same challenge: competing for attention in an oversaturated landscape. A strong brand helps you gain trust and resources, connect strategy and mission, and attract alliances. It also helps support the most important tenet of any nonprofit: galvanizing change.

Us vs. them

If “us” is the nonprofit world, “them” is often how the community sees for-profit branding. Some of that confusion stems from the fact that most writing on branding is geared toward for-profit audiences. However, just like doing good cannot be owned solely by nonprofits, branding need not be relegated solely to the world of for-profits.

The first step in getting on the right track is to disconnect the notion that branding is just about making money.

So what is a brand?

A brand is NOT just:

  • a name
  • a logo
  • a product or service
  • the company or organization

A brand is

  • what the organization stands for
  • the relationship a customer has with a product, service, or mission
  • the promises an organization makes to its customers and the perceptions, expectations, and experiences the customer has as a result
  • intangible associations evoked when customers interact with the brand’s “touch points” (websites, word of mouth, events, social media, supporters, email, fundraising, and so on)

In short, a brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization. It’s not what the organization says it is; it’s what the audience says it is.

What makes up a brand?

A brand is made up of the vision, mission, values, objectives, positioning, and personality of an organization:

  • vision is the better world that might be achieved; the idea that originally sparked the creation of the organization (the “why”)
  • mission is the expression of what the organization does (how the vision could be achieved)
  • values are the organization’s belief system, what guides its approach
  • objectives are the specific goals that must be achieved for the organization to fulfill its mission
  • positioning is the how the organization is different from others in the same space (such as peer organizations)
  • personality is the tone and style of all communications

These core elements, along with a marketing or connection strategy, translate into your visual identity.

Your visual identity is the distillation of these elements as well as the visual expression of your brand.

It includes:

  • a logo
  • core brand colors
  • one or two brand typefaces
  • images
  • illustrations
  • charts and graphs style

So who is this for?

Nonprofits have much broader and more complicated audiences than for-profits. You are tasked with creating connection while simultaneously projecting an image of the world you want to see.

Beyond that big job, your brand also touches both internal and external audiences. Your vision, mission, values, objectives, positioning, and personality give cohesion to your internal structure which—when externalized—results in trust.

Trust is one of branding’s key values; connection is the other

Unlike a top-down business structure, a nonprofit’s brand consists of community and broad-base involvement. Developing and managing brand elements helps you build operational capacity, galvanize support, and maintain focus on the social mission.

Branding is the psychological association and gut feeling your many different audiences have when they encounter your organization. Nurture it and manage it with the same verve you apply to your larger mission. Change the world while putting your best face forward!