Your nonprofit organization or foundation already has a brand, whether or not you've invested in a formal branding process. Your brand isn't your logo, and it isn't your mission statement either. It's the set of thoughts and emotions that come to the mind of your audiences when they read about your work or think about your organization.
So what do these people really think of your organization? Do they think of it at all?
You can do a lot to influence how your organization is perceived. It doesn't require a huge budget, and it doesn't involve trickery or pretending to be something you're not. It's just the opposite. The clearer you can be about what your organization stands for - and why that matters - the better chance you have of securing the support you need to get your work done. But is making the effort worth it?
Here are 5 benefits your organization will gain with a strong brand.
1. Minimize competitive threats
It may feel uncomfortable to think of competing in the nonprofit sector. After all, every organization is trying to do something good in the world, so why frame others as the enemy? The reality is that your supporters have choices - lots of choices - about which organizations to bolster. And they aren't limited to the organizations that are obviously similar to yours.
Your supporters are comparing you to each and every solicitation they receive from other nonprofits.
A clear, strong brand is a gift to your would-be supporters because it saves them valuable time and attention. Rather than wondering whether your organization is the best choice, they know it intuitively because your brand has consistently sent them strong, positive signals that allow them to trust you above others.
2. Defend against negative news
Remember ACORN? They were accused of illegal activities surrounding use of public funds. Though ACORN was later cleared of any wrongdoing, their financial support disappeared virtually overnight, and they had to end operations after 40 years.
Compare that to the outcome of the sting staged by the same conservative activists against NPR, in which the activists manipulated a taped interview of NPR's head fundraiser. This story was in and out of the public eye within 48 hours. The news media covered the story, but the negativity didn't stick to this well-respected public media organization.
Why did NPR survive while ACORN withered? Because of a strong brand.
When your organization sends consistently positive signals through your word choice, appearance, and actions, the occasional slip-up is more likely to be overlooked by your supporters. It's just as you feel about your good friends: One quality that bothers you isn't enough to end the relationship.
3. Enhance the self-image of your supporters
Each of us likes to associate with brands that make us feel good about ourselves, and that send a positive signal to the world about who we are. That's why people proudly tote their PBS bag to the farmers market and sip coffee from their Sierra Club coffee mug. If you stand for something clear, powerful, and strong, like-minded people can easily find you. And when they feel good about being part of your work, they proudly promote you to their own networks.
4. Help staff and volunteers know how to be their best for you
With a clearly defined brand, everyone who works or volunteers for your organization understands what he or she can do to embody your brand every day. They keep it alive and in reach for all your supporters.
5. Attract and retain great staff
We tend to think of financial donors, volunteers, and program participants as the brass ring - the prize for effective branding and strong communications. But there is another stakeholder group for whom the strength of your brand matters: paid and volunteer staff. Having a brand that powerfully conveys a big, appealing idea will help you attract the best and the brightest and will help you retain them when another organization tries to lure them away.
Clarity around brand is the cornerstone of effective communications; a clear brand provides the guide for shaping the messages and activities of your organization. Knowing your brand will help you tell the story of your work in a clear and compelling way that sets you apart. What benefits has your organization seen as a result of having a strong brand? Share your story in the comments below.
ZACH HOCHSTADT is a founding partner of Mission Minded, a branding firm that works exclusively with nonprofit organizations and foundations, and runs its Denver office. Zach is a branding and strategic communications expert with a gift for imagining and then translating organizational initiatives into creative solutions.
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