Do nonprofits need branding? (quick answer: Duh.)

October 25, 2019
Daria Gonzalez

Nonprofit brands are everywhere. Maybe you’re not contributing to one regularly, but if you’re anything like me (i.e. Millennial Snowflake), nonprofit branding regularly catches your eye. There are ACLU Ads in your Facebook feed; Amnesty International is featured in every other issue of The Economist that you regularly buy; witty WWF billboards are taking over highways and airports; and at least one of your friends volunteered for Teach for America. Nonprofit brands are among the most recognizable ones in the world – and always more trusted than their for-profit counterparts.

Why branding?

A well-built nonprofit brand goes far beyond just fundraising perks: it drives long-term social goals through reinforcing the organization’s identity. A strong brand is critical at every step of your theory of change. It helps build operational capacity, galvanize support, and maintain focus on the social mission. Why then do we so often overlook the importance of nonprofit branding?

Many nonprofit leaders associate activities like branding, marketing or salesmanship with corporate identities and the over-commercialization of nonprofits. From this perspective, it makes sense to purposefully avoid them in order to stay as far away from the ‘for-profit’ label as possible. Generally, for-profit practices should not be applied to running a nonprofit organization. However, given how wide the practice of branding is, I personally perceive branding activities as an exception to this rule. To me, the question isn’t about why it should or should not be done. The question is how to do it right in a nonprofit organization.

Nonprofit branding in four steps

A brand promise is composed of two parts: 1) what an organization says it will do; 2) how the organization will deliver what it says it does.

A.Create your brand promise

This is the first part of the equation. To create a brand promise, you have to gain an understanding of your audience and their needs. You then frame your brand promise to address the main ‘big need’. Amnesty International’s brand promise is: We campaign for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. It perfectly describes the area of their passion and expertise as well as their commitment to the challenge.

B.1.Embody your promise

After you create your brand’s promise (the ‘what’ and the ‘why’), it’s time to become that “obvious organization” that is capable of delivering on this promise. This is where your theory of change transform into a strategic platform that shapes your brand on rational and emotional levels. Visual identity will become one part of this strategic platform, and messaging guidelines will be the other. Colors, symbols, taglines – all of your brand’s features should make sense and be rooted in your organization’s promise. Large global nonprofits boast 100- 200- page brand guidelines that seem intimidating. However, for someone who is just starting out, a few pages with the most important basics are enough. Here’s a good example of an early brand guideline for Teach for America that you can use as inspiration

B.2.Communicate your promise

The next step is establishing communication channels for your organization and initiating a conversation between your new brand and the world. The Nerdy Nonprofit wrote this great overview of some of the best social media campaigns and communication principles by successful nonprofits of all kinds.

B.3. Fulfil your promise

The last, and probably the most important part of your promise is actually fulfilling it and maintaining communication between the organization and the world. Never stop fulfilling what you’ve promised.

In conclusion

A well-rounded brand sets your organization apart not only from your competitors, but also from your for-profit counterparts. A brand creates an emotional message that speaks right to the hearts of donors, volunteers and public. It provides substance to why you are best suited to solve a challenge. Last but not least, brand is a source of efficiency; it acts as a time-saving device, providing a shortcut in the decision making of potential investors, customers, clients, and partners.

If I haven’t yet convinced you that a nonprofit organization will greatly benefit from branding, let me use some help from ACLU. In a recent ACLU Brand Book, the organization had an incredible explanation for their long-awaited rebrand.

If I have convinced you about the value of branding but you don’t know where to start, start with the basics! Here’s a handy chart that we’ve created to help you better understand the branding activities cycle for nonprofit organization:


Nonprofit branding: a graph representing nonprofit branding activities cycle

We are still in the process of distilling this complex topic into simple and clear system based on our work with incredible social impact organizations and funds such as Dent Education, AIGA, Jane VC, San Francisco Equity Group and many others. If you have any direct questions about this chart or anything in this post, please reach out to us.

P.S. For those interested in theory and research that shape nonprofit branding, some additional literature to dive into is an incredible book The Brand IDEA by Nathalie Laidler-Kylander.

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