Does Branding Actually Help Nonprofits?

When people think of branding, they think for profit. Commercial art. For those in the nonprofit word, it is primarily a tool for fundraising – or written off completely. Both of these ideas are wrong.

MONEY DOES NOT DILUTE YOUR MISSION

Mahnaz Afkhami, founder of the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), put voice to this concern, suggesting that nonprofit branding may be akin to “selling ideas like you sell cereal.

But what if revenue and mission are not mutually exclusive?

Every organization has a brand because every organization operates under perception. Nathalie Kylander (co-author of The Brand IDEA, a book written to help nonprofits manage their brand identities) described branding in the nonprofit sector as “fundamentally anchored in the mission and values of an organization and critical at every step in the theory of change of an organization.” If you silo branding as a revenue-driver, your organization will lack focus. While branding can bring in money, it is most useful as a tool for organizational clarity. Building your communications from the mission up.

Branding is not a one-size-fits-all process. It unifies an organization, nonprofits, and for-profits alike, but this unification must be especially nuanced in the nonprofit sector. While a for-profit’s success may be quantified (sales), more factors are at play in gauging the success of a nonprofit. Quantifying mission clarity is almost impossible. Measuring impact is subtler.

Energize Your Organization’s Identity Through Campaign Branding

You don’t have to overhaul your organization’s identity to make use of a branding exercise. Individual projects contribute to the overall personality of an organization. It is an essential channel for brand refinement.

UNICEF’s ZEROawards Vietnam, designed by Rice Creative, responded to this global organization’s changing needs at a local level.

When Vietnam entered a “middle income” global status, its UNICEF chapter was ineligible for external funding. ZEROawards engages with Vietnam’s wealthy elite to raise awareness (and funds) for UNICEF Vietnam’s campaign to eliminate preventable child deaths. The primary mark is a zero made up of plus signs, showing the power of many positive actions in resolving this crisis – bringing the number of preventable child deaths to zero. ZEROawards were distributed to generous donors in recognition of their contribution.

And the first annual ZeroAwards was astoundingly successful. It raised nearly twice the target amount. While this campaign was not a UNICEF global rebrand, it impacted their identity by strengthening the visual demonstration of their mission.

Ayuda provides legal, social, and language services to low-income immigrants. Based in Washington DC, they serve the DC, Maryland, and Virginia areas. In late 2016, we were engaged to re-envision their annual report. We produced that year’s report and provided a versatile template for future reports. The report is sent directly to current and recent donors; used throughout the year as informational material at conferences, presentations, and events.

Director of Program Initiatives Arleen Ramirez Borysiewicz emphasized the necessity of the organization “harnessing the energy of the community.” The report must speak to donors and stakeholders and to the greater community of volunteers. Given the current climate, creating a product with a high versatility that would productively harness the community’s momentum was critical.

The publication was not a total identity upheaval. But it is a significant channel of communication to donors, volunteers, and the public.

Rebranding a Nonprofit

Historied organizations are not exempt from turbulent public perception; their identities are not static. In 2011, the YMCA recognized that being a household name was not enough. Their 1967 mark was outdated, sure. But, more alarmingly, public awareness did little more than establish the Y as a longstanding organization (i.e. stodgy). The scope of their services was virtually unknown to their target audience. So they engaged Siegel+Gale to visually refresh their identity while reshaping public understanding of their services.

The mark uses the same 1967 Y icon’s silhouette, updating its color usage and shape. The result? A vibrant, practical update to a recognized nonprofit, clearly aligned with the organization’s scope of services.

Community Farm Alliance (CFA) is a Kentucky-based nonprofit that organizes cooperation among rural and urban citizens through leadership development and grassroots processes to ensure an essential, prosperous place for family-scale agriculture.

In 2015, CFA engaged us to rebrand their organization in order to further unify their constituencies.

The identity we created was inspired by the organization’s rich sense of culture and history. The new, dynamic look can change with the organization over time.

Catching up with CFA, Executive Director Martin Richards told us that in addition to their developing programs, “Capacity has doubled and our communication products have received wide recognition.”

Nonprofits Can Be Startups Too

In 2008, Adam Braun founded Pencils of Promise, an organization that provides educational opportunities to children. Though technically a 501(c)(3), the self-dubbed “for-purpose” organization has since defied normal tropes of nonprofits,“blending the head of a for-profit business with the heart of a humanitarian nonprofit.” They recognized the importance of finessing their identity to make their “for-purpose” vision a reality. In the near decade since its founding, PoP has built over 400 schools and impacted an estimated 74,500 students around the world.

Access Unbound, a Colorado-based nonprofit, started in 2016 to to provide support for adaptive recreation programs at recreation destinations. These programs offer individuals with disabilities expanded access to professional education and recreational activities. Access Unbound started with a generic name in order to get their sea legs, but once they had established a solid leadership team and a vision for the future of their work, they knew they needed a brand identity match.

We came up with an original name and built their visual identity. This identity allowed them to work on the level of established organizations. According to Access Unbound founder and executive director Katie Zinn, the brand “lets us play with the big leagues, even though we’re not there yet.”

SO WHAT?

In conversation with Forbes, Braun of PoP noted that “across both startups and the not-for-profit sector, people are driven by intense passion around purpose and mission. They’re there because they believe the company is doing something that wasn’t there before.”

Branding is not selling your soul. It requires introspection and honesty.