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How to Develop a Brand for Your Nonprofit

So you're starting a nonprofit organization or have one and want to know how to build or strengthen your brand. Well, what is a brand? Is it advertising, your spokesperson, a logo? We have heard of the Red Cross, Oprah, McDonald's. These are all brands. And while there may be positive or negative perceptions about each of these, you'll notice their missions are easy to define—providing disaster relief when needed, inspiring people to live better lives, and providing a cheap, convenient meal. They are all based on making a clear promise to their audience. Essentially, your brand is the reputation you have for delivering on your promise.

What does this mean for a nonprofit? A strong brand will help the organization stand out from the masses of solicitations, distinguish its cause from other organizations doing similar work, and inspire others to support them. The best brands elicit positive emotional responses because people understand and identify with each one's mission and know that the organization is consistently true to it. When carefully developed and nurtured, the brand becomes the fabric of an organization's culture.

Over the long term, organizations with strong brands become well known and tend to raise more money. In today's environment, with more nonprofits than ever competing for funding, an organization can't afford not to have a strong brand.

This article, along with helpful links, can help you get started in understanding how to create a successful brand for your organization.

Components of a Successful Brand

Three components create a brand: differentiation, credibility, and authenticity. By assessing your organization's strengths in each area, you'll begin to understand how your brand value can be built, communicated, and delivered.

  • Differentiation
    While it is tempting to turn your passion into action immediately, with 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, first you need to distinguish your nonprofit from other organizations doing similar work. The average person is deluged with solicitations and is easily confused about what organization does what, so to stand out, you have to be very clear.

    Start with your mission—is it easy for people to understand what you do? Is your mission inspiring to enough people to attract a broad base of support to be sustainable for the long term? Do you have an achievable goal for success that will captivate people's imagination?

    For example, the laudable ambition of solving literacy provides little means to measure success. On the other hand, "a computer in every classroom" is a compelling promise that captivates people's imagination and allows them to envision the mission being fulfilled.

    To find out what other nonprofits are doing, run a search on GuideStar.
  • Credibility
    Before someone makes that online donation or steps up to volunteer their time, they have to believe that your organization has the ability to deliver on its promise. Whether your organization is rooted in a rich tradition or fresh ideas, or was created in response to grass-roots needs or global demand, your members and donors will want to know that you can be trusted and have solid management practices so that their money is put to good use. Having a strong board of directors that sets the direction for your organization and is accountable for results is one step in giving your nonprofit the credibility to substantiate its promise.

    For information on the role that boards play, visit
  • Authenticity
    The third ingredient of an effective brand is getting people to identify and care about your cause. Successful organizations know that they need to go beyond the support from people who are directly affected by the issue they are working on to attract a wider audience. By speaking authentically about the challenges you face as well as the expertise you bring to solving the problem, you make it easier for people to trust your organization and ultimately to volunteer their time and donate their money.

Every Picture Tells a Story. What's Yours?

Organizations with strong brands are able to distinguish themselves, establish credibility, and speak authentically. How do they do this? By telling good stories. Stories are the foundation of a strong brand—they give a deeper meaning to your mission and help people connect to what you do. Your organization's story may revolve around the personality of your founder, a galvanizing moment in your organization's history, or a natural affinity to your audience. Good stories, like good deeds, give your brand life, excite your donor base, and instill confidence in others that your organization is what it claims to be.

Howard Adam Levy, Red Rooster Group
© 2011, Red Rooster Group

Howard Adam Levy is principal of the Red Rooster Group, which helps nonprofits raise awareness and funds through nonprofit branding, Web sites, graphic design, public relations, and fundraising.

Topics: Communications