Branding is never easy, but nonprofit branding poses special challenges. Potential partners, team members, donors, and advocates can have conflicting expectations when it comes to professional efforts to define a nonprofit organization’s profile: while thrift and efficiency are held in high-esteem, there is also a natural hesitation for stakeholders to engage with organizations that don’t have a recognizable brand.
So while it is a necessity for nonprofits to build and maintain strong brands, they cannot risk appearing commercially driven. But do altruistic thrift and effective branding need to be at odds? No. In fact, with the right approach, these two seemingly opposing forces can work in tandem.
- DO: Have a Clear Purpose
While a key goal of any nonprofit’s branding should be to increase their visibility and drive donations, their primary goal must be to advance their organization’s cause by any means necessary. An effective example of an organization with this type of purpose-driven branding is Charity Water.
What sets Charity Water apart from other organizations is that it communicates the problem the organization is trying to solve (universal access to clean water), the solution to that problem (well drilling and water purification systems), and your potential role in effecting that change (donating or starting your own campaign).
Their branding makes it clear that Charity Water’s primary goal is to get clean water to as many people as possible, which is shown through their partnerships with like-minded organizations and simple communication of its progress, rather than through the use of expensive, flashy ad campaigns.
- DON’T: Run Your Nonprofit as a Nonprofit
When running a nonprofit, it’s vital to remember that “nonprofit” is just a tax identifier—that is, it shouldn’t stop you from running your nonprofit as a business (because that’s what a nonprofit is—a business).
That means being strategic, and using efficient operational, hiring, organizational, and fundraising practices.
For branding, more specifically, this might mean hiring a chief marketing officer, which many nonprofits don’t consider doing because they think it appears extravagant.
However, marketing oneself effectively will mean an increase in visibility, reputation and donations.
- DO: Engage Your Audience
Doctors Without Borders (aka Médecins Sans Frontières) is a fantastic example of a nonprofit that both keeps their mission front and center while also inviting the public to consider medical moral questions, for example: who should receive medical care in a war zone? (The answer? Everyone.)
This gets the audience thinking about their mission, which in turn will increase visibility and, eventually, drive donations.
- DO: Remain Consistent
It’s important for any brand to be consistent, but this is especially true for nonprofits, which constantly face the threat of public criticism. An example of a nonprofit with a brand that has remained consistent over the decades is the WWF—the World Wildlife Fund. It’s clear that this nonprofit truly is dedicated to its stated mission—“[conserving ] nature and [reducing] the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth”]—because of its sustained brand steadiness.
Its unique logo—a panda—has remained (virtually) the same since its founding in 1961, and is able to circumvent language barriers, allowing people of every nationality to aid it in its mission. It’s instantly recognizable as the WWF logo and is irrevocably tied to their mission.
- DON’T: Over-Spend on Advertisements
It’s imperative nonprofits never appear to prioritize visibility over their stated mission: the public has very little sympathy for organizations that do this. Take The ASPCA, for example, which raised $27 million dollars in 2012 and then spent nearly all of it on a fundraising campaign. Or PETA, which spent millions of dollars on a disturbing pro-vegetarian ad campaign.
Even the appearance of extravagance can cause problems. Take NYU Langone, for example: their spendy “Made For New York” ad campaign(via agency Munn Rabôt) launched in 2015 and placed local Superbowl ads in 2018.
Someone should have said to NYU Langone that it’s difficult to justify dumping $80 million blanketing the city in advertisements as “altruism.” The university hospital even had to clarify that student tuition was not used to fund the placement. Since then, the hospital has gone through many mergers and acquisitions, and recently rebranded under NYU Langone Health.
The Bottom Line:
It’s imperative for nonprofits to make their brand synonymous with their broader purpose and communicate clearly that their job doesn’t end when they receive a donation–rather it begins.
This means running their organization strategically and effectively while also building loyalty with their audience through consistency and engagement.
The World Wildlife Fund, Charity Water, and Doctors Without Borders have done this well, making their brand story inseparable from their purpose. The balance between effective altruism and powerful branding is achieved when purpose emerges from an organization’s mission, which is its beating heart.
Authentic, purpose-driven branding inspires generosity of spirit.