By: Eugene Fram       Free Digital Photo

How do people see your organization? Is your nonprofit clearly perceived, and the unique nature of its work, fully understood in the community or industry?

Nonprofit board members occasionally talk about the organizational brand image but rarely take tangible steps to define it. Yet the creation of a strong brand is a major factor in generating public respect, support and significant funding sources. Potential donors need to believe implicitly in the impact of the nonprofit on its clients. They also need to understand the realities implied in the brand image that fail to match the realities of the organization’s operations. For example, some family services agencies (actually multi-human service groups), have long struggled with a brand perception that they offer only family reproduction services.

Following are some guidelines that may help improve a current image or further clarify the mission which fuels the dedicated efforts of boards, staff and volunteers:

What makes the nonprofit unique?

One way to assess a nonprofit’s uniqueness is to ask board members and staff to wrestle with the question: If this organization were to disappear, who would miss it? Their answers would define the special fields of service that make the organization distinctive. Many nonprofits are defined by their names, e.g., National Kidney Foundation or American Heart Association, both of which represent the needs of a particular population. Mental Health groups are challenged in a different way: although their programs provide support for a wide group of maladies, they are unable to demonstrate their client impacts in the media because of the demand for cohort confidentiality.

There are more ways to characterize a nonprofit than projecting a recognizable name. Offering a high level of service is impressive to colleagues and community, being represented by a core of able board members and/or managers coming out with attractive promotional assets all contribute to a clear and positive image. The recent Ice Bucket promotion offered by The Alzheimer’s Association is an example of an idea that was a significant brand-builder and generated millions of dollars for research. Good nonprofit branding strategies must involve every board member and manager. They need to be ready with a short elevator pitch that succinctly tells the story of the nonprofit’s impact (not outcome) on its cohort of clients.

Need for Consistency

Consistency means a variety of activities that can be directly or indirectly observed by stakeholders. It includes:

  • Having a clear concise mission that is understood by the board, management, staff and all other stakeholders.
  • Consistency in graphics, publications and all social media that reaches the public.
  • The CEO must be the spokesperson for the organization, except under some crisis situations. This needs to be specified in policies and/or bylaws.
  • Board members and managers who “stay on message” when talking about the nonprofit’s policies and strategies.
  • Developing a board and management that focuses on client-centrist needs.
  • Continually evaluating programs and stakeholder perceptions, even if “imperfect metrics” are utilized. *

Need for Brand Value Alignment

The organization’s brand values must align with operational, and strategic policies. Where misalignment occurs, corrective action needs to take place immediately. For example, if a vendor does not meet contract requirements, a remedy needs to immediately be developed, even if the vendor is a well known locally. But the action might not be well received in the community. If the CEO is involved with documented fraud, the issue becomes a matter for the authorities. The Board does not have the authority to allow restitution. The staff person involved can’t be allowed to remain in office, as some nonprofit boards have permitted.

Branding for the Future

Over time a brand name can become obsolete through changes in wording, graphics or social media. That’s why those involved with nonprofit brand development need to consider the long-term future of the organization; This extends well beyond the traditional three to five year strategic planning cycles in making board decisions.  It is difficult assignment, but one that thoughtful boards and managements must assume.




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