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A strong nonprofit brand starts with the basics

Whether you know it or not, your nonprofit has a brand. Do you know what story it's telling the world? For example, are you communicating your mission clearly and efficiently across a variety of media platforms? Do both volunteers and the general public know what you stand for?

If you're struggling to establish or maintain a cohesive brand, take a closer look at the basics.

What's in a nonprofit brand?

The words "brand" and "logo" are often used interchangeably, but it's important to remember that nonprofit brands are about a whole lot more than logos or marketing campaigns. A strong brand is built around your mission — taking into account everything from first impressions to potential social impact and how the community feels about your organization.

If that sounds like a huge scope, that's because it is. As Marcia Marsh, chief operating officer of the World Wildlife Fund in the United States, puts it: "Our brand is the single greatest asset that our network has, and it's what keeps everyone together."

Brands aren't static, nor are they the result of any single event. Rather, branding is a nuanced conversation with your audience — and, like most conversations, it'll evolve over time. Just as your organization needs room to grow, your brand also needs room to take into account your current momentum.

The big picture

For a macro look at brand strategy, it can be helpful to pay attention to the principles of IDEA: integrity, democracy, ethics and affinity. These categories will help you address issues across the whole spectrum of your organization.

Cohesive brands stay true to message both inside and outside the organization. This simplifies everything from fundraising campaigns to staff recruitment. Taking the time to craft an authentic message now will pay off in dividends over time — helping your organization grow, thrive and form new partnerships in your community.

Tell your integrity story

Start with the basics. Who are you? What do you stand for? If you want people to care about your cause, they must first understand your objectives.

Pip Emery, who co-led the most recent global identity project at Amnesty International, puts it this way: "If you don't know where you're going and why you're relevant, you don't have a brand." So, where are you going? What societal problem are you trying to solve? Revisit your mission statement and take time to clearly articulate the social impact you hope to have.

Strong brands show high levels of integrity, meaning that the organization's internal and external worlds are lined up, both with each other and with your mission:

  • Internal integrity. Internal refers to everyone inside your organization. Do staff members, volunteers and other stakeholders understand the mission and their part in it?
  • External integrity. External is a measure of the cohesive, mission-centered front you show the world. High external integrity means that the world at large can easily understand your mission.

Building brand democracy

A high level of brand democracy means that you trust your volunteers, staff and donors to communicate their own understanding of your brand's identity. But, how do you make sure people know your brand well enough to discuss it beyond your office walls? Here's help getting started:

  • Get everyone on the same page. From volunteers to directors, everyone in your organization should be able to explain your mission on a 30-second elevator ride. Make note of the key words. Even more importantly, note where they falter. If they can't find the right words to describe something, it's usually because they don't yet understand it well enough.
  • Provide plenty of resources. Make it easy to check out mission statements, meeting minutes and case stories that sum up what your organization does best. These materials can help staff and other stakeholders further develop their understanding of your brand's identity.
  • Make it impossible to forget your mission statement. In some sectors, this might be as simple as a grassroots T-shirt campaign that gets your tagline into the streets. If your external brand is well established, it might be more important for your employees to view you as an employer with excellent benefits. In the right community, this could engender significantly more goodwill than a typical marketing campaign.
  • Be a good neighbor. People are watching what you do. Your actions make up a key part of your brand, especially to those standing outside the organization.
  • Seek to harness, not control, social media. Alexis Ettinger, head of strategy and marketing at the University of Oxford's Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, puts it bluntly: "Given the rise of social media it would be insane to try to single-handedly control the brand."

Do your homework

Spend some time reflecting on your brand both inside and outside your organization. Collect data, if needed — talk to your staff or connect with customers on social media. Does everyone understand your mission? Can they explain it to their children? Once you're comfortable with your democracy efforts, continue on to part two of our branding series: Branding your nonprofit: Ethics and affinity.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Nonprofit Quarterly: The eight building blocks of strong nonprofit brands by Peter Frumkin (2015)

Nonprofit Hub: Five ways to build your brand's buzzability by Randy Hawthorne

Ologie: Ten things you should know about branding your nonprofit (2012)



Writer and firm believer in using business as a tool for positive change