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The Importance of Branding for Nonprofits: Part 1

Early in my career, I was tasked with creating an annual report for a nonprofit client. Being an overachiever, I had my draft printed on nice glossy paper and staple-bound so the executives could better envision the finished product. When the CEO finished reading through it cover-to-cover, he set it down on the conference room table and said, “this looks too professional.”

You read that correctly: too professional. He feared that a well-designed annual report would discourage donations. As if a well laid out document gave the impression that the organization was already well-funded – so well-funded that they were in a position to prioritize good looks over their service and mission. I didn’t know something could be too professional.

I don’t fault him for it, but these fears are based on conceptions that are patently false.

At the time, I wasn’t articulate enough in my field to communicate this. Professional branding can have a profound impact on nonprofits.

First, what is branding?

Abstractly, branding is how you communicate your organization to the outside world. More concretely, this means branding encompasses your organization’s: name, mission, vision, values, logo, tagline, colors, typefaces, “look and feel”, email signatures, print materials (including annual reports), advertisements, social media presence, website, and so on. Branding is a series of systems that expands beyond just visuals.

Simply equating “branding” with “making things pretty” or “slapping on a logo” is a gross misrepresentation of the word. What makes branding effective is clarity and the ability to last wherever and however the organization may grow. It has always been my thought that in creating functional, understandable, and lasting branding systems that beauty naturally follows. In short: form follows function. The delight of “pretty things” is actually the delight of a clear message communicated in an understandable and engaging way that may just so happen to be visually appealing.

Clear branding is clear communication

Branding is all about developing trust and clarity for all stakeholders. Employees and volunteers want to believe in and be proud of the organization and mission that they work for. Those that benefit from the nonprofit want to know they’re in good hands, that they can breathe a sigh of relief because who you are and what you do for them is well-defined. Donors want to know that they’re contributing to a trustworthy organization that will be responsible with their dollars in making a difference. Branding makes these things clear.

Without branding there is only confusing, inconsistent, and random one-off communication coming from your organization. Branding filters communication into clarity and intentionality. Whether it’s in the form of a logo, an annual report, a conversation, or an event, branding ensures nothing is difficult to find, understand, or digest when it comes to your nonprofit.

Branding is necessary for an organization’s survival

Maybe it’s Darwinian to say, but nonprofits engage in a survival-of-the-fittest arena. As a nonprofit, you must appeal to peoples’ hearts, stay top of mind for potential donors, generate enough dollars to not only maintain operations but further them, and prove you’re making an impact. All the while, other nonprofits are competing for the same attention and dollars.

Branding is not a frivol for profit-based businesses, it is a necessity for the survival of any organization, even your nonprofit. If your organization lacks a clear message, it is not a given that people will remember you, much less consistently donate large sums of money to your organization. Confusion and absence of attention and dollars withers a nonprofit and diminishes the ability to do good for the community and cause. To stay fully capacitated, your organization must actively carve out a foothold in people’s memory by being clear, distinct, and appealing. These fortifications are effective branding.

Nonprofits are professional organizations

… and they should embrace it! As Paul Strawhecker will tell you, the main factor separating nonprofits from for-profit businesses is the nonprofit heart, or being mission-driven, instead of being profit-driven. This difference in motivation does not make nonprofits any less professional than for-profit organizations. Nonprofits are still organizations made up of professionals with the intent to deliver on a mission in a professional and consistent way.

Because branding is the communication of an organization, nonprofits have a lot to gain from focusing on professional branding and they leave a lot on the table by not doing so. There is no value in masquerading as amateurs when it comes to communicating your value to the outside world. If anything, it degrades trust. It is a disservice to the people working for the nonprofit, the people served by the nonprofit, and the people investing in the nonprofit to portray the organization as anything less than professional.

You are not a random ragtag team of novices blindly trying to help others. You are a qualified team of experts with resources, drive, a mission, and the nonprofit heart to make a tangible difference. Professional branding says we know these things to be true and we believe in ourselves, the roots and future of the organization, and we can be trusted to convert dollars into actionable progress.