Upward strategies for nonprofit brands

Nonprofit brands are definitely on the rise. Their ascent may have been a bit tentative at first, as they explored the best brand approaches for their organizations, but they’re finding effective ways to create and deliver brand value, and to build brand communities. As they move upward, they’re also bringing new fundraising options into view.


In this post I’ll discuss strategic brand approaches for nonprofit organizations. The time is ripe for such a discussion because many nonprofits have reached a “phase one” of brand development, where they’ve largely focused on building brand identities to aid in promotion and fundraising. They’re now ready to move to a more value-rich level of brand development using brand platforms and programs, and interactive brand communities. Freezing their brands at the identity level carries considerable downside risk.

Topics I’ll discuss include:

  1. Moving beyond brand identity
  2. The brand strategy imperative
  3. Building value-based brand programs
  4. The importance of brand context
  5. Brand partnership opportunities
  6. Leveraging the brand community

Three strategy areas for nonprofits

In general, nonprofit strategies fall into three areas:

  1. Strategies for mission effectiveness
  2. Strategies for fundraising
  3. Strategies for partnering and opportunity development

A nonprofit’s brand strategy can favorably impact all three areas. Historically, nonprofit brand development (as identity) has often been geared to fundraising, PR and publicity. This is probably the weakest use of brand and brand value. Brand programs produce their greatest results when they’re integrated into mission effectiveness (as collaboration tools) and into partnering and opportunity development (as value innovation.)

Moving beyond brand identity

In the nonprofit world the term “brand” has often been understood rather narrowly to mean “brand identity.” In this approach, nonprofits that seek to “build their brand” usually seek only an identity package designed to set them apart and make them more attractive to potential donors, sponsors or partners. This will typically include a memorable name, a distinctive logo or mark, a design guide to insure visual, symbolic and thematic consistency in all communications (including a website high in donor appeal), and perhaps a punchy slogan or tag line for positioning.

Once a nonprofit has its identity package in hand it usually considers its brand “done,” and is off and running with promotional campaigns.

The brand identity trap

Brands, of course, are much more than identity, and nonprofits that limit their brand building to an identity package may be leaving significant amounts of brand value on the table. They certainly run the risk of making their brand a form of signage rather than a form of community engagement. This can become a serious trap. If their focus on identity leads them to neglect brand programs and platforms, and building brand communities, they are reducing their strategic brand options. They are also leaving themselves vulnerable to competing nonprofits whose richer brand structures and programs make them better suited as strategic development partners.

The brand strategy imperative

Because brand programs produce more results than mere brand visibility, a nonprofit’s brand strategy will aim for much more than an identity package. A nonprofit’s brand programs will connect its substance and direction with the substance and direction of its participants and its partners. This is a strategic connection, made of brand platforms, deliverables, brand engagements, levels of brand experience, brand relationships, brand communities and value networks.

In the business world, a company creates its identity and brand value largely in concert with customers, in a process usually centered around product experience and customer relationships. In the nonprofit world, things are a bit more diffuse. A nonprofit brand creates its identity and value in concert with program beneficiaries, members, donors, sponsors, volunteers, government and civic agencies and other stakeholders. Its brand strategy must take all into account.

Brand strategy considerations

In formulating a nonprofit brand strategy, there are core questions an organization must consider:

  1. As an organization, what is our strategic solution to the problem we address?
  2. What is our (strategic) identity?
  3. How can our brand strengthen our strategic solution?
  4. What kinds of unique value can our brand programs deliver?
  5. How can our brand innovate?
  6. What kind of brand community can we build?
  7. How can that community help build our brand?
  8. How can our brand programs help advance 1) those we serve; 2) our donors; 3) our partners?
  9. How can our brand elevate the context of what we do?
  10. How can our brand create growth opportunities for our organization, our participants and our partners?

Platforms and programs at the heart of your brand

Keep in mind that as important as your identity is (and it is important), it’s only one component of your brand. The heart of your brand consists of brand platforms and programs that deliver value that participants and partners can use. These go far beyond your identity proper. They’re the building blocks of your future. They include the following elements:

  1. Your brand agenda
  2. The quality of engagement and experience that your brand delivers
  3. The value produced (or unlocked) by your brand
  4. How your brand changes the game in your category
  5. How your brand chain advances program participants
  6. How and where your brand innovates

The thesis of this blog is that brands can be highly effective tools to create customers in the business world. While nonprofits may not typically think of participants and partners as “customers,” for the purposes of nonprofit brand-building it may be prudent to do so.

For nonprofits, context is as important as cause

While a nonprofit may be organized toward a specific cause, its brand (and brand identity) can be strongest when they address a larger context that frames the nonprofit’s (unique) approach to the cause. For many nonprofits this may require a shift in thinking, and in self-definition. Convention is the enemy of brand. The last thing you want is for a generic cause to define you.

There are thousands and thousands of worthwhile causes, served by hundreds of thousands of nonprofit groups. Does your organization create some unique value in how you approach your cause, something that sets you apart and raises your solution (and the cause) to a stronger and more meaningful context?

Your transformational context

A large part of your brand, and your identity, resides in the transformational value that you provide. You are, after all, a change agent. Thus, you inhabit (and create) a transformational context that defines how you’re advancing your partners and participants through your brand.

While “alms for the poor” is a worthy cause, job creation and community development are probably a more productive (and transformational) context for helping those in need. Do you want to be a brand of “alms” or a brand of “community development”? Nonprofits on the solution side of a cause (i.e., “teaching people to fish”) can use the context they create as a primary means of brand differentiation. Through their transformational context they may also emerge as a foundation player in a new approach that redefines the cause itself.

Ask yourself: what are we a brand of?

One of the first steps in building a brand is to ask yourself: what are we a brand of? This can sometimes be a difficult question to answer. The most literal, functional or conventional answer may not lead to your strongest brand. A nonprofit might ask: Are we a brand of charity? A brand of compassion? Of fellowship? Generalized categories such as these may not be enough to drive a brand, or to differentiate you from other organizations that share the same mission.

Examples: what you can be a “brand of”

It’s usually best to build your “brand of” quality as a proactive force that creates value on a wider (transformational) stage. Then your “brand of” discussion might be: Perhaps how we innovate is what sets us apart. Thus, “we’re a brand of innovation.” Or maybe we offer structural solutions far beyond meliorative steps. Maybe we’re a model that redefines the category, raising it to a higher level. Maybe we redefine the context of our cause, so that it lends itself to more effective approaches. Perhaps we’re building brand communities that can take on a life of their own, extending the brand at a grassroots level. Or maybe we’re helping to eliminate the problem by empowering participants themselves, raising them and our brand in the process.

You might also be a brand of strategy innovation. Perhaps what you’re a “brand of” is a potential innovation avenue for a corporate partner, setting the groundwork for a long-term joint venture.

The above are typical departure points for answering the “brand of” question. As a rule, you would want to be a “brand of” something dynamic, deep, creative, liberating, expansive and social—and absolutely true to you.

Are we becoming a brand of fundraising?

Fundraising is so vital to nonprofits that over time they may tend to become—often without realizing it—brands of fundraising. When this happens their appeal becomes their brand, and it saturates their approach to the world. Often, this can be a side effect of “cause marketing,” which can reduce the brand to a symbolic role in marketing support. In effect, the nonprofit becomes a branded marketing machine.

A downside of becoming “a brand of fundraising” is that a nonprofit may begin to operate under fundraising priorities, neglecting its brand programs. This brings a danger of hollowing out the brand, missing brand innovation opportunities, ignoring brand communities, and opening the door for others to step in with more compelling forms of brand value and brand context.

This problem can be mitigated when fundraising strategy is aligned with brand strategy.

Partnering to advance the nonprofit brand

Corporations and nonprofits have long maintained productive relationships based on the exchange of support for brand goodwill. Corporate donations can return positive “good citizen” publicity to companies, and the support enables nonprofit programs and growth. Indeed, such win-win goodwill affiliations have been significant drivers of nonprofit fundraising campaigns.

However, As Porter and Kramer have pointed out here and here, corporate donations to nonprofits stand to deliver far less to business than strategic partnerships. Their “essential test” for a nonprofit is not whether a cause is worthy but “whether it presents an opportunity to create shared value – that is, a meaningful benefit for society that is also valuable to the business.”

This perspective raises the brand bar for nonprofits. A nonprofit cannot rise to this level when its “brand” consists largely of a promotional identity.

Strategic brand partnerships to add value

It’s probable that in the years ahead companies will look to nonprofits for strategic brand partnerships that create such shared value—in the form of joint development opportunities—that help transform social problems into social solutions. The PR goodwill that companies traditionally gained by sponsoring nonprofits may not be enough to interest innovative, solution-driven businesses. They will be on the lookout for innovative nonprofits who can add value to philanthropy.

When this happens, nonprofits that lack value-based brand strategies will suddenly be on the outside looking in. Their passive philanthropies will be no match for nonprofit brands predicated on strategic value creation and community development. The latter will have the inside track on partnering with firms that want to make a difference with social impact.

Nonprofits can lead in forging partnerships

Could such brand partnerships ever replace traditional nonprofit funding avenues? Not entirely, of course, but they could certainly open up new funding streams beyond the category of “donations.” These may be in joint initiatives, value networks and community development. It’s not unreasonable to expect active nonprofit brands to take the lead in many of these efforts. As the domain experts, they should possess critical insights into domain opportunities.

Leveraging your brand community

A key challenge for every nonprofit brand is to grow and empower a brand community that ultimately can add value back to the brand. This brand-building approach focuses on building a brand community that can grow the brand from the bottom up. This is an organic way to grow the brand with many possibilities for cost-effective leveraging, especially in this digital age. One community can launch a thousand opportunities. The nonprofit becomes a portal on community potential, and economic potential.

One advantage of a brand community is that it can grow on its own power by network economies. The “cause” is both atomized and energized. Indeed, the future of nonprofit brands may include extensive brand networks and ecosystems, instead of individual, centralized “brands” competing for funding dollars. The brand community itself effectively becomes the brand. Thus, if we wish to glimpse the faint foreshadows of nonprofit brands of the future, we may find ourselves looking here and here.

Photo: SplaTT — Flickr

2 Responses to “Upward strategies for nonprofit brands”

  1. olivier Blanchard Says:

    Brilliant post!

    “Fundraising is so vital to nonprofits that over time they may tend to become—often without realizing it—brands of fundraising.”

    I’m bookmarking this for future use. 🙂

  2. Brian Phipps Says:

    One of my concerns is that as “brands of fundraising” nonprofits can all seem the same. Donors have a hard time differentiating them, unless the nonprofits possess deeper brand programs with clear value streams.