The Importance of Branding in the Nonprofit Sector

The term “branding” is increasingly working its way into the vernacular of non-profit organizations.

Brands are synonymous with recognition and today’s reality is that recognized non-profits tend to dominate fundraising markets. The non-profit sector should not dismiss branding as an irrelevant for-profit marketing tactic, and here’s why.

First, let’s talk about what it means to build a brand.

In his book The Dictionary of Brand, expert Marty Neumeier defines brand simply as “a person’s perception of a product, service, experience, or organization.” Neumeier tells us that a brand is not a logo, identity, or product, but the gut feelings invoked in people.

Jon Wuebben, in his book Content is Currency, offers a slightly different, yet similarly helpful, take on branding. He encourages us to think about branding as “The notion of establishing a familiar presence, having a standard way of doing things, and establishing a level of confidence in the minds of your customers.”

At the end of the day, branding in the non-profit sector is a way to develop – and communicate – an organization’s identity. It is a method to build, and build upon, trust and confidence in the work being done. The natural focus of most nonprofit brands is the mission, vision and values, and if successful, a well-developed brand should spark feelings of meaning, familiarity and trust among constituents.

At this point you might be asking yourself: “How is this different from what I am already doing?”. The answer is that, yes, branding is inextricably woven into what is already happening in an organization. The difference with branding is that it is a “take the reins” approach that thoughtfully guides people’s perceptions of the organization. It results in the development of a marketing strategy with the intention to build, promote, and protect the brand.

The goal for nonprofits is to develop a brand that, for supporters, is so strong an emblem of what they value that the organization’s brand becomes a part of the supporter’s identity. Think about the person who wears a Sierra Club branded t-shirt and has a National Audubon Society sticker on the back of their car. This person is telling the world: I care about the environment. This is who I am. I have seen this attitude among supporters within even the smallest, niche non-profits.

How do you go about building a brand, exactly?

Nonprofit branding stands on three pillars: mission, performance and marketing. Knock down one pillar and the whole thing falls apart. A strong brand will have a clear purpose, achievements under the belt, and the ability to communicate this effectively to the public. Branding takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. And branding is very, very much tied to reputation.

For nonprofits, branding is centered around the feelings that come out of the stories that are told: those with an eye on branding will never miss an opportunity to tell their story.

But to tell the story correctly, everyone with a vested interest in your organization, and at every engagement level, must be clear on the mission, vision and values. This forms the basis of the brand. If the mission/vision/values feel like something that needs tightening, or even if it doesn’t, bring people together for a strategic planning session. This is a chance to talk about the mission, the impact of the organization, and to begin to develop (or fine tune) the messaging that communicates this to the world.

One of the most impactful things that organizations can do to build their brand is start by focusing on their website. Building a brand is more than a catchy logo: place the world’s greatest logo on a poorly designed website and you’d still end up with a lousy website. A good website inspires belief in the mission.

Nonprofits can use social media to highlight all of the progress toward this mission and champion loyalty and engagement with their audience. Print collateral should match the website (for example same color scheme, writing style, messaging) and be prevented from getting outdated and stagnant.

Don’t overlook branding as a nonprofit strategy.

Branding takes resources, a scarce commodity in the nonprofit sector. But the fact is, we relay information through our brand whether we mean to or not. We want our communities to know the personality of our organization and resonate emotionally with our message, and we want to control this message. Branding is not an easy, linear process, but that doesn’t mean that those of us in the nonprofit sector should ignore it altogether. In today’s competitive environment, nonprofits now, more than ever, need to have strong brands to survive, and to thrive.

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