nonprofit branding simplified

Nonprofits often think they’re too busy fundraising to worry about branding. I totally understand how the need to generate net income can squeeze out taking time to think through branding. The reality is that in its simplest, most pragmatic form branding is all about relationships.

A famous momAt the core of branding, you don’t have to worry about focus groups or style guides. All you have to do is think about calling home. When I call my mom in Texas, I don’t introduce myself. I don’t have to say, “Hello, this is Steve your son in Washington, I try to call every Sunday afternoon.”

My calls start with, “Hey.” That’s it.

And my mom knows it’s me.

She knows the sound of my voice and my “hey” is pretty distinctive to her after all of these years. Mom and I have a relationship. Some times I get crazy busy and I go too long between phone calls, but so far she’s still knows it’s me. For some reason, I always say “hey” and she always knows it’s me.

The basic concept of a brand is for your donor to know it is you whenever you say “hey.”

Everything you do, every fundraising letter, every newsletter, every email, every phone call, every smoke signal you send has to reinforce the message, “it’s me.”

Think about it. Ugly direct mail or a high concept magazine ad isn’t the issue. The issue is…. is it “you” and does the your donor know it’s you?

Certainly it gets more complicated than this. But this is where you start.

Get every newsletter, every fundraising appeal, every major donor communication. Print out all of your recent emails to donors. Print out your website, every page (people are not arriving only on your front page, they’re coming in through search engines and who knows where they’ll land). Lay all this stuff out on a conference table or on the floor of your office. Does it all look like you?

It probably won’t.

Now look at what you have. What sticks out as either not looking like you or not sounding like you (“you” being your nonprofit)? That’s where you start. Even if most of what you see is pretty ugly. It is better to be consistent not beautifully designed than have some materials look like they came from someone that isn’t you. You see?

Good news! You’ve just completed a major branding study for your nonprofit for the cost of some samples, printer paper and your time. (You may want to ask for a raise.)

So what do you think? Can the starting place be this simple? How do you know when your brand is right (or wrong)? I’d love to know what you think.


Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(unedited photo credit: freeparking)

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

2 thoughts on “nonprofit branding simplified”

  1. I love the lens with which you’ve approached branding here. I think people want to make branding something very expensive or complex, but you’re right on the mark.

    Unfortunately, part of what makes branding so challenging to a lot of nonprofits is staff turnover. As a new person comes in, they come with their own ideas for the newsletter, mailings, etc. and next thing you know everything has a new feel.

    Perhaps the challenge is that many agencies never develop the voice that so clearly aligns with their mission? I’d imagine if you decided to adopt an English accent, your mom might not recognize your voice right away. Perhaps if we let go of what we think we should sound like (or what “sells” better), we can find our own unique voice and be recognized for all that we are.

    This has definitely given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

  2. @Tammie,
    Funny you should mention an accent change… A few years ago my then teenage son went on a school trip to Disney and came home with a very good English accent. It seems that the girls at Disney were more interested in an “English exchange student” than a band kid from Texas. We could still tell it was him through the funky accent, but it was strange. That lasted an unbelievably long time–like 6 weeks–we were glad when it disappeared. Maybe it is extending the analogy too far but possibly the fake accent is like some of the weird marketing concepts that nonprofits implement and their donors have to wait for that “strange accent” to go away.

    Thanks for your astute comments about turnover. We were on the phone with a prospective client this morning and the turnover described was frightening.

    Thanks so much for stopping by. Love the way you think.
    st

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