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Let’s Talk About Branding

Resource Center - Foundation

As the nonprofit landscape gets increasingly competitive, it’s important to brand yourself by clearly conveying your organization’s focus, credibility and unique contributions. If you think brands are only for Walmart and Starbucks, then think again. Every single organization – including your nonprofit – has its own personality, its own identity and its own set of characteristics. 

Most organizations dread the idea of investing in their brand because it feels intangible (and often tends to fail) when the expected outcomes or reasons for doing it are vague. These elements tend to be poorly defined when in-house expertise in marketing and communications is limited. Organizations of all sizes are now coming to realize that hiring outside experts in this field pays off.

Your brand book bible

Whether you run a small or large organization, a brand book is essential to operations. Across various activities, employees, volunteers and affiliates are producing a variety of information, far too often with little or no structure to the online, printed and promotional items. In order to preserve the brand, it is important to maintain its main visual communication:  a single visual identity. Brand standards should be developed, documented and systematically enforced.

A brand book is a vital tool for identifying the brand and is the peak of corporate identity. For example, which combinations of fonts or colors are permissible in certain situations? How should printed promotional or fundraising materials look and be made up? What specific elements should be used in the design of event material or on the website or in exhibition stands? Answers to all these questions need to be assembled in a brand book.

A brand book should be developed by professional designers, approved by the executive director and printed for all employees, volunteers, sponsors and partners – especially the fundraising and communications division. It should also be available in PDF format to send via email and share on the organization’s website for even easier access.

Creating a brand book can save you time and money on endless adjustments and modifications of visual identity, so make it a top priority for your organization.

Get everyone on board

Before you undertake any significant shift in communications, your staff and board leadership need to agree on the value of investing time, energy, and yes, even money. There are a few ways to get everyone on the same page. First, take a look at how your communications materials compare with peer organizations. Are you doing a better or worse job at getting your message out there?

Are your competitor's programs, fundraising or advocacy efforts more or less successful at reaching the right people and driving action? Reviewing the websites of other organizations similar to yours is a good place to start.

Second, share best practices. The nonprofit sector is full of useful resources; many available at no cost. Share articles, webinar recordings or podcasts with your colleagues and discuss them freely, without any agenda. What works? What doesn’t?

Finally, don’t push it. Like strategic planning, working on your brand takes real effort and the timing has to be right. Keep the conversation alive and it’ll happen.

Need to convince your board or executive director that branding is worth investing in? Talk their language – don’t talk design. Explain that you’re much more productive and effective, spending more time actually doing work (fundraising, for instance) when you aren’t constantly frazzled by communications. It’s a relief to know that you don’t have to start with a blank sheet of paper every time you sit down to create something. When a new person starts, you’re able to bring them up to speed quickly so they can be effectively communicating within their first week on the job. Strong branding means spending less time creating and more time reinforcing messages that support fundraising, programs, advocacy and executive leadership.

When everything and everyone from the organization sends the same messages, you’re more likely to be perceived consistently and accurately. Above all, being strategic about communications inspires confidence in donors, partners, and other key audiences.

It’s not all about you

Today, the not-for-profit brand must be an external-facing brand. The days of having an identity that could look inwards without a care for the outside world are over. Nonprofits live or die because of outside forces – government funding, fundraising, volunteers, regulation and more. In addition to external forces, internal challenges such as recruitment persist and are predicted to become stronger as the current generation of staff and donors move on.

It’s time to not only think outside the box, but to look outside and all around the box as well.

Branding is not getting your stakeholders to fall in love with your mission, whip up a cool logo, write a catchy tag line and call it a day. Branding should be at the core of your organization and taken care of daily. In the same way you take special measures to exercise your body and eat nourishing meals to keep your heart strong and lead a long and energetic life, the same care should be taken when considering your organization’s brand. It’s a vital organ that needs to stay healthy.

Portions of this article were adapted from interviews by Nancy E. Schwartz and John Stuart. 

Kim Fuller is President for Phil Communications and a member of AFP Quebec. Kim has been active in branding, graphic design and internet technologies for over 15 years and philanthropy for nearly 20. Contact her at kim@philcommunications.com  (514) 932-0314 x 21.



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