“Our work speaks for itself.”
It’s a common mindset among nonprofit leaders. Everything, from fundraising to recruiting to programming, is focused on activating the mission.
But letting your work speak for your organization is risky — because the work itself is technical, opaque, full of jargon. Often people outside your orbit can’t understand it. So your work doesn’t speak for itself. Not really.
Instead, your brand should speak for your organization. Your brand is your voice to the outside world. It helps people understand your organization, so it’s important to be thoughtful about it.
I can sense your hesitation: Branding hasn’t had the greatest reputation in the nonprofit world. Maybe your experience has convinced you that branding is just a visual makeover. It feels like a luxury that distracts from your mission. It’s probably a tough sell to your board. Just as people have difficulty talking about themselves, branding can seem self-promotional, manipulative, not who you are as an organization.
Your Brand is of Your Own Making
People often say that branding is about how you are perceived by the world. Yes — but the word ‘perceive’ is too passive.
Branding is active. Branding is what you do, not what is done to you. It is a tool you can use — to increase your impact, raise funds, win over hearts and minds, to solidify your team and their work into a more cohesive whole, and move your mission forward.
If you don’t have a powerful story to tell about your work, the world will craft its own. If you don’t stake out a position that is meaningful to you, then your audience will conjure one themselves.
And most likely, it won’t be one that you’re satisfied with or proud of.
This misperception can be internal, too: Among your team, people have their own lanes and specific knowledge that, while accurate, is not always complete. Building a brand creates alignment and buy in that unifies and amplifies the power of your work.
Which is why we believe that branding happens from the inside out. It builds internal clarity. External confidence. A singular voice for the organization.
Once you start to see your brand as something that you actively control (and not as something that is the indirect sum of your other actions), you recognize that if you don’t build and maintain a strong brand, you’re squandering the influence and work of your organization.
3 Truths About Developing a Nonprofit Brand
1) Branding is hard. We’ve been at this work for more than a decade. We’ve sat at tables with leaders and communications staff and asked the difficult questions that lead to deep insight. In fact, we’ve subjected our own business to the same process. So we’ve developed real empathy with the teams we coach through a brand or rebrand.
2) Branding is scary. If you’re not scared, you’re not doing it right. Getting to the core of your organization involves asking impossibly hard questions: Why does the world need your organization? How would the world be worse without your work? Is your team on the same page about why you’re doing this work and why it matters? Does your story of the work match theirs? What’s the danger of this disconnect? What are you leaving on the table?
3) Branding is emotional. Not just the work itself, which ignites passions and reveals uncertainty among your team. But the outcome, the brand, has the power to create emotional engagement that persuades people to take action.
So the brand’s essence has to be simple. If you’re confident that you’ve got your story and positioning straight but you can’t articulate it in three sentences or fewer, then there’s a problem. Filling a website with reams of data and information about what you do and how you do it is not branding.
Find your essence. Boil it down. Make it simple without making it simplistic. And make it emotional. Your audience are not robots. Change is less about what we know and more about how we feel.
Nonprofit Branding in Action
It’s dangerous to let the public form their own opinion of your organization if they’re only privy to little pieces of your story. Often, people have incomplete information about your work or form impressions based on what others have told them. These perceptions rarely reflect hard facts.
The New York City Criminal Justice Agency came to us with a perception problem, which was actually a brand problem.
The organization is not part of city government but works adjacent to it, guiding people who come into the criminal justice system through the pretrial process.
Prior to our engagement, public perception was that CJA was complicit in fueling the problem of mass incarceration. In reality, they function as social workers to support those who encounter the criminal justice system so that they make their court appearances and that they or their families can post bail.
Through our branding process, we defined the real values that they brought to the work. Leaders had staked a politically neutral posture and preferred to operate as a faceless bureaucracy. But our research showed that the outside world interpreted that neutrality as complicity.
We advised that their nonpartisan stance should be backed by a set of stated values so it was clear that there’s a moral anchor to their work. We created a specific page on their website focused on their research ethics and values, so the public could no longer say CJA enables a broken criminal justice system.
A Strong Brand Builds Trust
At a time when trust in nonprofits is decreasing (or on par with business) and the role of the social sector is more important than ever, branding is the way to boost your influence.
Brand is layered, nuanced, faceted, and dimensioned. When someone encounters your organization online, or through a news article, or via an awareness-building event, they should experience a singular voice representing the core of your organization.
The journey and process of branding or rebranding is as important as the end product. We’re committed to walking side by side with you to uncover your purpose, crystallize this into resonant words and visuals, and help you wield this influence in order to move your mission forward in a meaningful way. Let’s talk about how we can support your work.
This essay was originally posted in the newsletter Insights by Hyperakt, a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. Illustration by Merit Myers.