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How to Build a Standout Nonprofit Brand
Follow these branding best practices to develop a nonprofit brand that’s true to your mission and the community you serve.
Believe it or not, branding isn’t reserved for big, corporate for-profit businesses or the “big” nonprofit organizations. No matter your nonprofit’s size, your brand matters. After all, your brand lives in everything you put out to your current supporters and potential donors, from your event t-shirts to your annual appeals to the emails you sent for your most recent fundraising campaign.
Whether you’re all-in for building a captivating organizational brand or if branding feels like a foreign endeavor, now’s the time to consider how you want to show up in digital media, at events, and in your appeals. To help you get started, we reached out to branding experts and nonprofit leaders with experience building memorable brands for our webinar, Bring Your Whole Self to Brand: Authentic Marketing for Nonprofits. Our panel included:
- Mitch Stein: (Moderator), Co-Founder & CEO at Pond
- Sonia Hildner - Founding Principal at One Wild Goose and Interim CMO at Pond
- Sam Wilkes - Creative Director and Co-Founder at PDA
- Alicia Cepeda Maule - Co-Founder and Digital Engagement Director at Givepact
From unlearning what you may have thought about branding in the past to considering your brand from a variety of perspectives, follow these best practices to build your organizational brand in a way that inspires supporters and celebrates your mission.
Shake Off Those Misconceptions About Nonprofits and Branding
Before you begin, it’s important to check yourself on some of the most common misconceptions people have about branding. Let’s set the record straight.
Misconception #1. Branding is all about “the colors.”
While a thoughtfully-curated color palette has its place in your branding, your brand encapsulates so much more than that.
Misconception #2. You should approach branding differently for a nonprofit than a for-profit business.
It’s a myth that branding work in the nonprofit space should be treated in a particular way. That kind of thinking creates barriers around your brand explorations, blocking you from pursuing all that’s possible. This approach leads to safe, predictable work when the ultimate goal of branding is to make your organization and your mission shine.
Misconception #3. Your brand should be reflective of your personal taste.
This is probably the biggest hurdle stakeholders must overcome when creating or revamping a brand. In short, your brand is not about you. It’s about your mission, the people you want to reach, and the goals you aim to achieve. It doesn’t matter if you have an affinity for the color red. If that doesn’t vibe with your mission or culture, it’s not a good fit for your brand. Fortunately, the entire ethos of the nonprofit space revolves around serving others, so working outside of you and your team members’ preferences during brand exercises will likely come more naturally to you than to for-profit teams.
Begin Your Nonprofit Branding Exercise with Crystal-Clear Goals
When it comes to branding, having a clear mission is half the battle. While your mission is core to your nonprofit, many organizations struggle to identify exactly what they do and clearly define the impact of their actions.
Try this: Recite your mission to someone in your network who may not be familiar with your organization. After you say it to them, ask them to tell you what they think you do and what impact you create. If they hit the nail on the head, you did too! If their response is muddled or not exactly on point, you may want to further workshop your mission statement.
Next, consider the goals that will help you realize your mission. To ensure that your goals are as clear as your mission, consider the following format for them:
We want to [ACTION] so we can [IMPACT].
For example, We want to reach more Gen Z donors so we can grow our reach on social media.
Or, We want to better educate our supporters about our mission and programs to build trust in our organization within our community.
Once you and your team are aligned on your goals for creating or revamping your organization’s brand, you’re ready to take on the brand-building process alongside experts who do it best.
Bring In Folks Who Live and Breathe Branding
As mentioned before, brand decisions involve more than choosing a color palette. And even then, that critical step should be guided by a professional designer who understands the science of colors and how they work together.
Your organization belongs to many people, from those within your team to the community members you serve. Your brand should reflect this. To do it right, we recommend you consult people who facilitate brand-building exercises and create successful brands day in and day out.
That doesn't mean you throw the whole kit and kaboodle their way and wait for an outcome. As a stakeholder, you set the goals, then let the creative experts create the solutions. It's a collaborative process, sure, but having people who understand the craft of developing resonant messaging and design principles can help you better communicate what you know lives at the heart of your brand to people outside of your inner circle.
As a collaborator, you and your team can effectively define the top-level goals that will lend to your eventual brand strategy. No one knows your mission better than you, so it's your job to give feedback when a design doesn't match up to the mission you've established. And as we just mentioned, the heat's not all on you. Maybe you're a founder at a small organization, and everything always comes down to you. With branding, you can breathe easy because it comes down to your goals and your mission and how your brand can represent the people you serve and those who care about your cause.
Visualize the Aspects of Your Brand as a Tree
If you’re new to branding or it’s old hat, seeing your brand in tree form can help guide your team through constructing your brand strategy. Think about it this way: The roots are your culture and the people that you're serving, and the reason your nonprofit exists defines your position. That’s your “trunk.” Moving up the tree, you’ll describe what your nonprofit gives to the community you serve. Next, you’ll pinpoint your “edge”, what makes your organization different from others with similar missions.
The branches of the tree detail how you represent these things visually and through storytelling, which leads to how your brand shows up on social media and your website.
As for brand strategy in terms of choosing the channels you’ll lean on and live on, it can be tempting to be everywhere. But as you can imagine, the “everywhere” approach isn’t a sustainable one, and frankly, it’s not a successful one. Instead, go back to your goals. Do you aim to educate, entertain, advocate, or a mix of those three? Your answers can guide your content choices and the channels you use to bring it out into the world. For example, SMS is great for advocacy, TikTok and Instagram are designed to entertain, and webinars are an excellent platform for educating your supporters.
Rest assured, your data will tell you about the effectiveness of your brand messaging and the channels you rely on. This is where the importance of building your nonprofit’s digital ecosystem comes in. When you record the performance of the donation forms on your website and social media along with your email engagement in a central donor management and fundraising CRM, it’s easy to identify what’s working and what’s not in a snap. Best of all, this system keeps stakeholders and team members aligned and creates effortless transparency around all of your simultaneous brand efforts.
Discover Your Dream CRM on Pond
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The best part about the tree model as a brand exercise? In the same way trees grow over time, so should your brand. Every couple of years, you and your team are well-served in conducting a thorough brand audit to ensure that your brand and your mission are still ringing true to the incredible work you do and the impact you make possible.
Think About Your Brand as a Person (No, Really, It Helps!)
New to the idea of branding? Start with brand archetypes. Brand archetypes serve as personas or personalities that brands can embody. They define how a brand acts, how it communicates, and how people perceive it. In fact, the very best brands can be immediately likened to affable personalities.
For example, let’s look at “The Creator” brand archetype:
Chances are, you probably already guessed Apple would top the list as one of the world’s most recognizable “Creator” brands because of its relentless pursuit of innovation. Ready to brainstorm your brand archetype? Read this beautifully-illustrated roundup of all the brand archetypes and the messaging that defines them to get a better idea of what yours might be. Feeling two? Although choosing one can help maintain your focus, pairing brand archetypes can also help guide your exploration.
Aim for Consistency and Authenticity Follows
Of course you want your brand to be authentic. Who doesn't? But defining this buzzword regarding your brand admittedly takes a bit of work. When it comes to your nonprofit's brand, or any brand for that matter, "authenticity" is realized through consistency.
An authentic person is always just that: themselves. After all, how could they be anything but? The same goes for your brand. Your brand doesn't live in a vacuum. It's not, "Oh, here's our brand for our spring gala, and here's our brand for our Giving Tuesday campaign. It's always consistent, so your supporters see your content, know exactly who it's from, and trust it from the jump.
And here's where a more frequent audit can keep your team in check. Part of your audit should include a review of all of your materials. Do the branding on your website and email campaigns match? How about your donation forms? Are your development interns well-versed in your organization's brand guide, or do some of your social media posts look a little off? Identifying areas that lack brand consistency can help you strengthen your brand presence, even after establishing guidelines months before.
Be True to Wonderful You As a Part of Your Nonprofit’s Brand
As an organizational leader, you may wonder if establishing a brand will hamper your personal brand. The good news is that your brand is an enhancer to your personal brand, not a barrier. Your brand doesn't dictate your actions or restrict your voice. It's more like a spice you can mix into your messaging. It's a part of your professional identity, not an all-encompassing identity in itself. The core tenets of your brand will be designed to work for a wide range of people within your organization, but the way it presents in your Linkedin posts is entirely up to you.
Brand Awareness is for Everyone on Your Team
Yes, even your interns and volunteers. And rightly so. When your brand is rooted in your organization’s goals, everything you and your team members do should revolve around that. The key to ensuring brand consistency, which is critical to building trust, is making your brand elements accessible to everyone throughout your organization by using a comprehensive brand guide that includes your color palette, brand voice guide, iconography, and core messaging.
The more you invest in your brand, the more successful it will be. From asking supporters for feedback to conducting regular audits to keep elements consistent, the effort you take to build and maintain your donors' trust is always worth your time and resources. Best of all, once you experience a productive brand exercise, the rest of the work is simply following the path you've set to achieve the goals you defined at the very start.