October 22, 2019
Every Nonprofit Can Have an Effective Brand

By Michele Levy and Leslie Kaplan

A strong brand is a powerful asset for a nonprofit organization, but, like any asset, it must be developed and maintained in a way that supports the mission and helps the organization achieve its strategic goals.

A brand is the public’s perception of an organization, and at its core is a promise to stakeholders to deliver what they expect and need from your nonprofit. As the face of the organization, staff and volunteers need to be equipped with consistent language, messaging, and standards in order to deliver a consistent brand experience to every stakeholder.

Your brand is what people think when they hear your name or see your logo. (e.g., say the word “Volvo” in a meeting and see how many people answer “safety.”) An independent school may promise an innovative learning experience; a museum may promise cutting-edge art.

Every Interaction Is Critical

To deliver consistently on that promise, every single interaction—in person, in print, and online—is critical. If your staff and volunteers don’t understand what the brand promises, and don’t have the tools to live the brand, they’ll never be able to deliver to your client, donors, and partners. It’s crucial to equip them to be able to do three things:

  • Talk the talk – use consistent language and messaging;

  • Meet the standards – stick with your brand style guidelines re: logo use, color palette, fonts and imagery;

  • Walk the walk – deliver a consistent brand experience, for instance by answering the phones a certain way, having consistent guidelines for how you interact with clients and volunteers, agreeing to a certain level of service delivery, etc.
How do you ensure a consistent delivery of your brand promise? First, make sure that promise resonates with staff and volunteers. They need to believe that your organization can make that particular promise. Show them the links from mission and strategic goals to brand strategy. Help them understand that brand messaging (your elevator pitch and proof points) does not replace your mission statement. Rather, it provides a consistent, compelling way for you to communicate with the stakeholders you need to engage in order to deliver on your mission and achieve your goals.

Staff must understand the internal benefits of a strong brand. Often, the clarity and consistency of a strong brand makes it easier for staff to do their job, especially if they have communications and development responsibilities. Effective brand tools (messaging and visual brand guidelines) save time and money, while contributing to greater impact.

Brands Help You Set Priorities

A strong brand can also make it easier to prioritize events and activities. Most nonprofits are understaffed to take advantage of all the opportunities before them. A clear understanding of mission and brand provides strong criteria by which to prioritize efforts.

A strong brand must be endorsed by leadership. Staff and volunteers need to see that delivering on the brand promise is just as important as meeting budget goals, membership numbers, etc. There are a variety of ways to reinforce that connection. If you are launching an updated brand, make some noise. Consider marking your brand rollout with an event where you distribute a fun giveaway only available to staff. At the very least, create an internal communications plan to build awareness for, understanding of, and engagement with, the brand.

Make it easy for people to create brand-consistent communications by establishing a “brand central” section of your intranet that houses a comprehensive brand toolkit (guidelines, templates, FAQs, approved logos, photos, etc.).

Understand, too, that you may need to build some flexibility into the brand. While consistency is the hallmark of a strong brand, you may find it necessary to personalize by region, target audience segment, service area, etc. Even when you create that flexibility in your system, however, you create it around a strong core that never wavers.

Then instill the brand into the fiber of your organization. Telegraph the importance of brand by incorporating it into your regular updates. Include brand training in your orientation programs, and weave the brand into your professional development processes. Constantly reinforce the importance of the brand by rewarding great brand behaviors and correcting not so great ones. For example, if you see a volunteer treat a client in a way that is beautifully consistent with your brand promise, call out that example and use it to illustrate what you mean when you talk about delivering on the brand.

And if you have a board member who consistently describes the organization based on what you looked like 10 years ago, you’ll want to gently provide the right language (perhaps in more than one way, and more than once). Your goal is to make everyone care about the brand as much as they care about your other operational metrics.

Brands Need Champions

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, every successful brand is driven by a strong brand champion. The most effective brand champions understand branding. They “own” the brand and care passionately about it. They have the vision and clout to make things happen...and keep them happening.

The brand champion is probably not at the executive director level (although senior leadership has to sponsor and support the effort). The identity of that person depends, to a certain extent, on the size and staffing model of your organization. Sometimes it’s the chief operating officer, sometimes the director of marketing communications, sometimes your development director.

Depending on size and structure of your organization, that individual may play the role of both brand champion and “brand police” – stewarding the brand strategically (high-level messaging and stewardship) tactically (making sure the logo and other assets are being used properly).

A strong brand is a powerful asset but unlike many physical assets, your brand does not require significant inputs of financial capital. Rather, human capital is one of your most important determinants of your ability to build a strong brand. With education, communication, tools, and persistence, every nonprofit, regardless of size, can develop and maintain an effective brand.

Michele Levy is a specialist in brand strategy and communications planning for nonprofits. She can be reached at 617-645-6672 or mlevy@brand-strat.com. Leslie Kaplan is a partner at The Boston Group. She can be reached at 617-350-7020 or kaplan@bostongroup.com.

April 2011

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