As of 2016, there were more than 1.5 million nonprofits registered with the Internal Revenue Service, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, all competing for resources and attention. As a result, the charitable sector is more crowded than ever, and nonprofits must determine how they can differentiate themselves and break through the noise. They must build a unique image.
Branding should convey a nonprofit’s unique image to the general public, to the constituencies it serves and to donors. That being said, I’ve found there are three easy steps to build a unique image: define the brand, sustain the brand and communicate the brand.
A nonprofit’s brand should be strategic and intentional. Your brand is the image that potential donors will have of the organization—and it is much more than just a memorable logo. Your brand dictates voice, vision and content. It portrays the nonprofit’s unique value proposition and should directly communicate the mission.
If you have a product or service that is differentiated in the marketplace and that stands out from the rest of the pack, you have a golden opportunity to garner more sales than your competition. You also have the opportunity to command a higher price for the product, leading to increased revenue. The same thought process can be applied to nonprofits; if you define your brand so that you can stand out in a crowded marketplace, you will be more likely to see the return.
To define your brand, ask yourself the following questions:
• What problem is your organization addressing?
• Who is your key audience?
• What is the mission?
• What are the core values?
• What is the tagline?
Homing in on these responses will help to determine your brand’s personality and focus. All marketing collateral and external messaging should then relay this personality.
I saw how important it is to home in on specifics when I was named CEO of American Humane; initially, I’m not sure I could have told you what our brand really was. We were trying to do too much with too little and to be too many things to our donors, staff, board and other stakeholders. As a result, our focus was diluted and our impact reduced. We shed programs where we weren’t leaders because we recognized that programmatic overlap between organizations wastes resources and ultimately hurts the group you are trying to help. In doing so, we reaffirmed our distinct position in the animal welfare space.
A challenge many nonprofits face is finding how to stand out from other players in a similar field. When there is brand confusion, the public may not necessarily understand who they are giving their donations to or that there is even a difference between organizations. To combat this, it is important to periodically reenergize and refocus the way you present your organization to the world—and to employees. Brands must be kept fresh and relevant.
For example, my organization went through our own rebranding recently. After 140 years, our brand needed a refresh. From this experience, I found it is important to examine your strengths and refocus your branding on how you differentiate from the competition. Conduct an in-depth analysis of your strengths and your history to pinpoint what makes you unique from other institutions in your field. For my organization, following these steps helped us determine our new tagline, which was inspirational for our team and to stakeholders and potential donors alike. We also applied a common branding technique called the brand wheel, helping us to identify the true essence of our organization.
Work to establish the white space in your field, and determine how you can capture the opportunity and use it to sustain your brand.
Once your (re)branding efforts are complete, you’ve got to take the next big step, which is to communicate your brand. All the great branding in the world—all the high-paid marketing consultants, all the focus groups, all the reflecting and refining—won’t do you any good if you fail to communicate to the right people.
In my view, the best nonprofits save donor dollars to execute on their programs that directly align with their mission, however, it’s also important to make investments in communications to efficiently get your brand name into public awareness. Generating media interest can help nonprofits build a strong base of new and individual donors at all levels of giving.
Consider making use of high-quality but inexpensive public service campaigns, featuring celebrities or influencers that support your brand. PSAs, as well as billboards, can reach millions of people across the country, making them a powerful tool for communicating the brand.
By defining, sustaining and communicating your brand, you can build a unique image for your nonprofit organization. When it comes down to it, standing out in a crowded marketplace is a straightforward proposition. This, of course, doesn’t make it any easier to execute. Standing out requires discipline, it requires focus and it requires innovation on the part of your people.