Not so long ago, many nonprofit organizations believed branding was only for cars, soap, or breakfast cereals. It certainly wasn’t a major concern for those focused on a mission of doing good. Today, branding is more widely regarded as a strategic asset – integral to both shaping perceptions and making a bigger impact. But maybe because it’s a newer area of practice, I have observed a few common nonprofit branding mistakes.
A strong brand helps organizations communicate in a clear and compelling way to build awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Without a strong brand, you will struggle to connect audiences with your mission, reinventing the wheel with each new initiative.
Because I want to see more do-gooders maximize their branding efforts, I have compiled an overview of common mistakes – and ways to avoid them.
Planning for now
In The Three Questions, an illustrated children’s book based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, young Nikolai is searching for the answers to three questions: When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? This profound and inspiring book is about compassion and being engaged in each moment.
Nearly every nonprofit organization began as someone’s passion project. The impetus is often a desire to help with the immediate needs of the people around you – right now. When those needs are acute, a bootstrapping mindset pushes “extra” things – like branding and marketing – to the back burner. This singular focus, while admirable, emphasizes tactics over strategy. And it can often hinder efforts to scale the positive impacts of the good work being done.
A strong brand is driven by strategy and long-term planning. Brand strategy links organizational goals and audience needs to the ways your communications – in print, online, and in person – will fulfill them. It provides the big picture view that guides tactical choices, increasing perceived value, and growing trust over time.
Assuming your audience thinks like you
We recently worked on a website redesign for a small nonprofit. The outdated site included links to hundreds of PDFs – updated annually – simply because it was easier for the communications manager to continue creating content that way. Despite our client’s assurances that this was valuable information, there was no evidence that site visitors were downloading these documents. And because they were only downloadable, this information wasn’t visible – or searchable – on any of the website’s pages.
Even though your audience may benefit from your products and services, a consumer almost always has different needs than the provider.
Complex problems – like those commonly addressed by nonprofits – often include audiences with different life experiences and points-of-view. Identifying and prioritizing your audiences’ needs requires empathy and outreach.
A strong brand is less of a broadcast and more of a dialogue. Plan to spend ample time learning about the people you’re trying to reach, and involve them in generating new ideas when possible. In this way, your brand will not only support key organizational objectives, but fulfill your audiences’ needs.
Forgetting your colleagues
At the beginning of every new branding assignment I ask: “Who needs to be made happy in order for this to move forward?” This question is designed to suss out an organization’s hierarchy and approval process. Unwavering support from the top of the org chart is critical to the success of any branding initiative.
But even more important is considering and communicating with those tasked with the brand rollout and implementation. Defining your brand is key to reaching external audiences, but internal alignment can make or break you. With staffers spread thin in most nonprofits, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture strategy – especially when it’s not your day-to-day responsibility.
To maintain a strong brand, everyone has a role to play. If your job involves communicating with any of your audiences – whether you are in marketing, operations, fundraising, or at the front desk – you are a brand ambassador. With the help of workshops, guidelines, and regular reminders, the internal team shapes how people perceive the organization by living the brand daily.
Chasing shiny objects
Maybe your brand was launched several months (or years) ago. You’ve defined key messages. You’re consistently using the logos, colors, and fonts – but you see them every day. When the excitement begins to fade, it’s tempting to start making changes. Resist the urge. Your audience is not looking at your brand every day. Familiarity is far more valuable.
Similarly, as consumers ourselves, it’s difficult to avoid the lure of the latest hashtag challenge, viral video, or social media platform. It looks fun! Nonprofit organizations are notorious for spreading staff and budgets thin across too many media channels. It’s better to set priorities – matching expertise and resources to audience preferences – and then be disciplined enough to stick to them.
A strong brand builds equity over time. For maximum impact, you need every program, service, and department to be playing the same tune. Brand guidelines make it easier to coordinate your key messages and visual assets across every platform. A content calendar is an efficient way to plan ahead for what and when to share. And instead of chasing trends, analytics can inform future decisions based on your audience’s response to previous campaigns or posts.
Building a strong brand
If branding was easy to do well, these mistakes would be less common. Think of it this way – you’re in good company! As I often told my kids when they were faced with a challenge and unsure how to proceed: “Chances are, you are not the first person to have this problem. Try learning from the experience of others.” I hope this has provided some ideas for navigating your branding challenges. Please share some of the ways you have built and maintained a strong nonprofit brand at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect on social.
Check out our branding work for Full Cycle – a nonprofit bicycle shop.
Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter