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Why Nonprofit Branding Matters

Brands are everywhere. From personalities to products, to companies and even places, everything has a ‘brand’.

Branding is often understood as consisting of a company’s logo, but there’s so much more to a brand than just the visual elements. A brand is an idea, an understanding of who your organisation is and what it represents. It’s an expression of an organisation’s core values. It’s a concept and a promise of what an organisation stands for and works to achieve.

A good brand will communicate all this, and will inspire an emotional response from your audience.

In a sense, your brand is everything your audience feels about your organisation. It frames the emotional relationship they have with you and your work.

Because of this, the visual assets of your brand make up just one part of the image someone has of your organisation. In reality, every bit of contact your audience has with your organisation contributes to their overall relationship with your brand.

It’s still common for many nonprofit organisations to resist seeing branding as an important part of their work. Although lots of Australian nonprofits have branding nailed, for various reasons many smaller organisations are struggling to prioritise brand management. More often than not branding is seen as a commercial concern, useful to nonprofits only for raising revenue.

But, recent research shows that this view is starting to change. An increasing number of nonprofit groups are exploring the role that good brand management can play in both achieving social change goals and strengthening organisational identity and cohesion.

Why Brands Matter

As governments both in Australia and overseas increasingly move to privatise social sectors and strip social projects of their funding, it’s more critical than ever that nonprofits be as strategic and effective as possible.

Branding is one tool that has the capacity to unify and strengthen an organisation around its goals and work. It has the potential not only to increase revenue-raising capabilities, but also to help rally a community around an organisation’s meaning and inspire action.

A study back in 2006 examined the relationship between nonprofit branding focus and organisational performance. The results suggested that “...strong brands are becoming increasingly important for the longevity and survival of nonprofit organisations.” The key branding benefits cited in the study are improved relationships with existing donors, attracting new donors, and even changing public opinion.

Another study from 20051 made similar findings, concluding that “A compelling brand image is more important to nonprofits than commercial sector companies.” The study found that an effective brand image can significantly increase numbers of donors, members and volunteers.

This idea that nonprofit branding is actually more important to nonprofits than for-profits might seem a bit extreme. But the idea is based on the proposition that unlike commercial brands, which generally offer a product or service to the consumer, for nonprofits the key brand element is the organisation’s mission.

As that same study from 2005 points out: “If people are going to donate time or money or become members, they want to know what the brand is all about; they want to know the mission statement.”2

People want to feel that the nonprofits they support are trustworthy and accountable, and brand reputation has a huge role to play in building that sense of trust.

Of course, the argument for good branding isn’t just about raising revenue. Another more recent study from 2013 3 looked into the importance of nonprofit brand differentiation in attracting volunteers.

The study found that the way individuals perceive the brand of an organisation played a significant role in making decisions about where to give their valuable volunteer efforts. In particular, they found that if two nonprofit brands did not significantly differ from each other in perception they were considered interchangeable in terms of volunteer experience.

Creating this clear sense of brand differentiation is becoming increasingly important as the sector becomes more and more crowded. These days, there’s a charity for everything. Proliferations of nonprofits exist, making it difficult for people to differentiate between them and decide where best to donate their money and time. Helping your nonprofit stand out matters if you’re going to compete for your audience’s attention.

When you consider how important it is for supporters to easily understand and get behind a nonprofit’s mission, it becomes clear how valuable it is for nonprofits to effectively project their mission to their audience via a strong, unique and easily comprehended brand.

Challenges for nonprofits in implementing good branding practices

Considering the importance of good branding to nonprofits, how can such organisations best work towards creating a strong brand, and what problems might they face in doing so?

Even as recognition of the importance of branding grows, the implementation of strong branding strategies remains a challenge for many nonprofits. In part this comes from a lack of resources. It can be incredibly difficult to execute a branding strategy without the required expertise or human resources to manage the workload.

The other major challenge facing most nonprofits when it comes to branding is a lack of industry-specific knowledge and customisation of branding approaches:

“Although the ambitions of nonprofit brand managers are growing, the strategic frameworks and management tools available to them have not kept up. The models and terminology used in the nonprofit sector to understand brand remain those imported from the for-profit sector to boost name recognition and raise revenue.” - Kylander & Stone 2012

The need for a brand approach that’s unique to nonprofits makes sense when you consider the difference in brand and reputation building between the commercial and nonprofit sectors. In the commercial sector, when a customer hands over money in exchange for goods or services they will generally receive that product personally. They will have direct evidence of the value of their spend in the product they received.

For nonprofits, supporters generally hand over money in good faith that the organisation will then provide the services to someone or something else, elsewhere. It can therefore be difficult for supporters to assess the value of their investment, as they don’t have direct evidence of it in front of them.

One common solution to this challenge is for nonprofits to ensure they are effectively pushing out information about their achievements and the impact of their work.

A number of nonprofits do this incredibly well. (See Charity: Water for an obvious standout example.) These organisations are taking advantage of the targeted and personalised communication opportunities that digital can provide. They are empowering their supporters with the information they need to feel part of a movement and know their contribution makes a difference.

There is no doubt that to communicate this really well requires a huge amount of resources, time, effort, and creativity. However, putting in the time to increase brand touchpoints and develop a thought-out supporter journey can really make a difference in terms of creating loyal supporters and brand advocates.

What about the logo?

Obviously, the visual elements of a brand are a huge factor in communicating your brand concept. But if you’re looking to refresh your visual collateral or refine your brand message, it's essential to first ensure you have a deep understanding of who your organisation actually is.

What is the organisational mission? What are the values driving that mission? What is the brand personality? How is the brand currently perceived, both internally and externally?

Only once you have that deep understanding can you successfully go about communicating your brand message, because really great branding has authenticity and insight at its heart. From there, you will have the foundations to build a brand strategy that will strengthen your organisation's work.


Josie Ryder is a Digital Marketing Consultant at Squareweave. This article is based on a research paper she conducted for university studies.

Got an idea for a project? Interested in finding out more about our branding services? You can call us on 1300 77 1337, or email brendon@squareweave.com.au


References

Chiagouris, L 2005, ‘Nonprofit Brands Come of Age’, Marketing Management, vol.14, no. 5, pp. 30-33.

Daw, J & Cone, C 2011, Breakthrough Nonprofit Branding, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey.

Kylander, N & Stone, C 2012, ‘The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector’, Stanford Social Innovation Review, vol. 10, no. 2, viewed 13 February 2013, http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/the_role_of_brand_in_the_nonprofit_sector.

Napoli, J 2006, ‘The Impact of Nonprofit Brand Orientation on Organisational Performance’, Journal of Marketing Management, vol. 22, pp. 673-694.

Randle, M Leisch, F & Dolnicar, S 2013, ‘Competition or Collaboration? The Effect of Nonprofit Brand Image on Volunteer Recruitment Strategy’, Journal of Brand Management, vol. 20, no. 8, pp. 689-704.


  1. Chiagouris, L 2005, ‘Nonprofit Brands Come of Age’, Marketing Management, vol.14, no. 5, pp. 30-33. 

  2. Chiagouris, L 2005, ‘Nonprofit Brands Come of Age’, Marketing Management, vol.14, no. 5, pp. 30-33. 

  3. Randle, M Leisch, F & Dolnicar, S 2013, ‘Competition or Collaboration? The Effect of Nonprofit Brand Image on Volunteer Recruitment Strategy’, Journal of Brand Management, vol. 20, no. 8, pp. 689-704.