What branding is and why your nonprofit needs it

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Imagine this: You have sat down to a spaghetti dinner with your family. You wind the noodles around your fork, lift a bite toward your lips, and are interrupted by the doorbell. You sigh, place the fork on your plate, and make your way toward the door.

There is a young woman standing outside. She asks you for a donation of $50 to support her good cause. Her organization is unfamiliar to you, and her explanation that “All donations help people in need” isn’t very convincing. But, you don’t want to be rude. Your family is waiting. And your meatballs are getting cold. So you ask for a brochure and say you’ll look up their website. As you rejoin your family, you set down the flyer near your computer.

The next day you see the brochure while checking your email. Your eye glances past the cartoonish logo of a woman in a wheelchair to find the web address, and your fingers begin typing in the URL.

The banner image loads slowly. The “welcome” text is long. There are lots of images of volunteers. The website is colorful but you are confused and can’t really figure out what this organization is all about. You go to their Facebook page and see that the last post is from 12 weeks ago.

Now you might ask what this example has to do with branding! I am glad you asked.

What is branding?

Many people think about their logo when they refer to branding. And from my 10 years experience working with non-profit organizations, I have found that the word branding is often used in a wrong context. Because branding is not just about your logo - it goes way beyond. The “spaghetti dinner” story is a great example. Because branding is what people think, talk, and feel about you when you’re not in the room: Brands are all the tangible and intangible things that create the overall experience someone has when they hear about or interact with your organization.

Branding, then, includes how you visually present your organization on your website, on social media, or on printed media like posters and brochures. Your logo, of course is part of that. It also encompasses how you communicate with others, show your values, and share your organization’s impact. In short, branding is the main foundation of every strong organization. With that in mind, would you have given to the organization mentioned in my “spaghettidinner” story?

Here is the key truth: Your brand will exist whether your organization plans for it or not. Because brands have everything to do with how others see you, and very little to do with how you see yourself. The moment you present yourself to the public, you set the branding wheels in motion. That said, it is crucial that nonprofit organizations deliver the same message, same design, same tone, and same feeling consistently - no matter which touch points are being used. A little planning here can go a long way.

The three reasons your nonprofit organization needs branding

For-profit organizations have focused on branding as a way to sell goods and services for eons, and nonprofits today can apply many of the same principles to building their reputations, communicating their results, and engaging with supporters.

Not sure if this is really needed for your organization? Here are my top three reasons why your nonprofit should focus on branding:

1. Branding to differentiate your nonprofit organization

Standing out from the hundreds of organizations that may be similar to yours is a hard thing. But there is one thing stand-out organizations have done to make it easier: They have crafted a clearly defined strategy and message.

Even when nonprofits are focused on the same causes, each of those organizations has a unique vision and mission, and a unique purpose and set of values. There will always be something that makes your organization different and important. But this alone will not differentiate your nonprofit.

Remember that branding is all about how others see your organization. This means that how you communicate with your audience, clarify your message, and align your images, words, and actions with your vision, mission, purpose, and values are what will make you stand out. “Dreams are made possible if you try.”

Do you know who said that? Terry Fox. Now, when you think of Terry Fox, what feelings and emotions come to mind? What did he stand for? Do you think of a logo? Do you think of him as the poor kid that had cancer? No. Terry Fox is a Canadian hero. Why? Because of what he believed in. He ran 5,373km across Canada to raise awareness for cancer. He changed people’s attitudes towards the disabled, and he showed that while cancer had claimed his leg, his spirit was unbreakable. Even after his death, he inspires us. Every year, millions of people in close to 25 countries participate in Terry Fox Runs and fundraising events and raise money for cancer research.

Now, not every organization has a national hero representing their organization. But this is not the point. The point is, that you need to find the part of your organization that your audience can connect with, and then give them the opportunities and channels they need to get involved. That will differentiate your organization.

2. Branding to reach your audience

Strong brands know that their strength doesn’t necessarily come from numbers. It comes from their ability to reach the right people, at the right time, in the right way, using a clear, defined brand message. Branding can help your nonprofit assemble a network of highly engaged people who will stand up for your cause and support you. It is better to have a small group of engaged people than a large group of followers who don’t really care.

To get there from wherever your nonprofit currently is today, you need to understand two simple facts. First, people want to know what they support and why. And second, they don’t want to spend a lot of time figuring that out. Website visitors, for example, typically invest an average of 7 seconds to find out if your cause is worth supporting. Considering that, focused and precise messaging is non-negotiable. Communicating your purpose and your impact is also essential. Ultimately, you need to align your purpose with the aims and values of your audience.

There’s a quotation from Martin Neumeier worth adding here: “Today’s customers want more than features, benefits or experiences. They want MEANING”.

As a nonprofit, you are in an enviable position. More than most, your organization is already designed to reach people who already want to make a difference with their actions, purchases, and donations. Ask yourself what your organization can do to help that group achieve their hopes and dreams. Think about Terry Fox. Why did he touch the lives of so many people? Think from the perspective of your supporters. What are their frustrations? What are their hidden needs? What are their hopes and dreams? How can you help them become the person they want to be? If you can figure that out for your organization and align your purpose, values, and actions with theirs, they will listen and not only support, but help to grow your cause. And that will help you, not only with your external communication but also internally.

3. Branding to attract funding

If you are like most nonprofits, your website has a built-in donate function, you are active on social media and share the good things you do, and you send out regular newsletters to keep your donors up to date. So, how can branding help your organization draw new donors, retain current ones, and attract more funding?

Donors want to know what happens to the money they share with you and how they have contributed to your impact. As a nonprofit, it is your job to clearly communicate how donor funds have been invested and to let your donors know the results that have come from your partnership. Take Charity: Water as an example.

Charity: Water is a nonprofit organization bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries. Their goal is very clear, and they openly state that 100% of public donations go to water projects. Because this model is different than other nonprofits, Charity: Water explains that their organization’s operating costs are covered by angel investors and other philanthropists, enabling them to use all additional funds raised for project work. Their transparency builds credibility and invites people to become tribe members committed to bringing worldwide access to clean water.

In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek points out that people don’t invest in what you do, they invest in why you do it. For Charity: Water, it’s not really about the water at all. As they state, “access to clean water means education, income, and health - especially for women and kids.” By framing the issue as something that goes beyond a cold drink, people contributing to the cause become the heroes in a story that has the potential to affect nearly 1 in 10 people worldwide. Donors quickly understand the value they are providing in sharing their resources, and Charity: Water makes it easy to learn how having access to clean water changes individual lives.

Your NPO can follow the same pattern by creating stories that align with your brand value, positioning your donors as heroes in a broader narrative, communicating a clear reason to donate resources, and by emphasizing your organization’s “why” in communications.

Conclusion

Had the young woman who interrupted your meal been able to communicate what was unique about her organization, and had she been able to refer you to a website and social media presence that presented a clear, defined, and aligned message, there’s a good chance you would have made that $50 donation.

When nonprofit organizations develop a strong brand, they position themselves to differentiate their organizations, connect with their audiences, and attract the funding they need in order to accomplish their missions. Consider first the current brand experience you offer your internal and external networks. How easy have you made it for others to connect with your cause? What systems have you designed for you and your staff to easily connect with others, and how well do they work? What feelings do you consistently invite in your supporters?

Good branding doesn’t need to be complex, but it does need to be effective. Answer these questions and get others to weigh in. Make smart changes. And, always, keep moving forward: there are people waiting for your help and likely more waiting to help you.

Kerstin Heuer is a marketing specialist and founder of Non Profit Today. Since 2008 she has used the trifecta of branding, marketing, and design to help non-profits communicate the heart of their organization, connect with their audiences, and achieve their missions. With over 25 years of industry experience and lessons learned from work on 500+ non-profit projects, Kerstin is skilled in collaborating with NPOs to make sure they have a clear message and the traction they need to spread it. Connect with her on Linkedin or email her at: kerstin@non-profit.today.

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