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How Leading Nonprofit Brands Stay Relevant

As the number of nonprofits has proliferated—adding to the competition for mindshare and money—even organizations that are household names must adapt to appeal to a new generation of donors. Their strategies to do so are varied and can serve as inspiration for other organizations. 

Expanding Mission 

make-a-wish-logo.gifWith its easy-to-understand mission, the Make-A-Wish Foundation has established itself as a household name in less than three decades. Whether granting a wish to be a pilot or to have a puppy, the organization is known for fulfilling the requests of children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions. However, the organization is one of many that is shifting its brand to remain relevant. 

“We’ve learned that, in conjunction with medical treatment, a granted wish has a real impact on a child, often marking a turning point in the fight against their illnesses. And so, we want to change the concept of a wish from something that is perceived of as nice, to one that is deemed necessary,” says Josh deBerge, Make-A-Wish director of national communications. 

In the case of Make-A-Wish, its leadership team is supporting the shift in mission by setting a target of reaching every eligible child—an audacious goal that became a rallying cry for the organization’s 120 employees and 28,000 volunteers. “We made the choice to move beyond incremental growth with our brand to move the needle in order to serve the entire population that we can,” says Josh. 

In order to achieve that, the organization is working on multiple fronts—operations, marketing, and fundraising. “We're looking deeper at efficiencies, like offering centralized IT or bookkeeping services to help chapters in granting wishes and raising money. We're telling a smarter story with more focused marketing to appeal to different groups of people, and we're looking at new ways of fundraising, such as piloting a new program for crowdfunding wishes.” 

It Pays to Advertise

volunteers-of-america.gifIn 2010, the president of Volunteers for America, a 120-year-old organization that was spun off from the Salvation Army, declared that it was a top priority to make its brand a more powerful name. The charity hired an ad agency to develop a national advertising campaign for the first time in the organization’s history. As part of the campaign, its tagline was changed to “Helping America’s most vulnerable,” and an elevator speech and other messaging tools were developed to help staff communicate the mission. 

The effort seems to be working. Volunteers for Americas brand tracking study of 1,000 people showed an increase in brand recognition, from 33 percent in the first year to 40 percent three years later. 

Volunteers of America continues to create visibility for its organization by partnering with the LPGA as the LPGA’s signature charity. This resulted in on-air coverage at the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout in Irving, Texas, which reached the desired donor audience of upper-middle-income females in their mid-70s. 

While increasing its visibility, the organization is also adjusting its services to changing needs by focusing more on veterans services. “This is a growing interest and concern for Americans in general, as well as corporations, the media—and we are responding.” says David Burch, senior director of communications for Volunteers of America. 

Refresh Messaging

doctors without borders.jpgDoctors Without Borders, another well-respected nonprofit brand, is largely supported by individual donors. This is a double-edged sword for the organization. “We are an independent, humanitarian action organization that has unlimited freedom to find people who need services and to serve them—and donors often comment that‘s why they choose us,” explains Molly Elliott, marketing director. “Our challenge is how to market effectively, because we have to solicit individuals on a massive scale, and that costs money.”

With 88 percent of funds going to programs and services, the organization is lean and its finances are transparent. But donors still complain about the money being spent to reach them. Molly is looking to change the perception that the organization spends too much on fundraising. 

“My goal is to prove that fewer mailings can still perform better,” she says. 

Changes to the mailings have included adding more details about how money is used and softening the ask. “The changes are paying off,” she says. “But we still have to solicit donors more than they want.” 

Media Is the Message

Communicating with people in a way that is meaningful to them is an imperative for National Public Radio. NPR remains relevant by making sure content is available in a way that people can connect with. Programs are now available on platforms that their new audiences would expect—Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, podcasts—especially the younger audiences that it is trying to attract.

“How you act and where you appear has as much to do with remaining relevant as what you do on a push basis,” says Alan Feldenkris, executive director, marketing & branding. “You have to meet the expectations for your core readers and listeners. For younger audiences, it’s not enough to get our mission across, our content needs to be consumed.”

Tell Your Own Story

smithsonian-1.jpgThe Smithsonian is another organization putting more emphasis on its content—a brand shift for an entity known by most people as a collection of museums. In fact, with its 19 museums, nine research centers, and other affiliates around the world, the Smithsonian is the world's largest museum, education, and research complex.

“People know we have the Hope Diamond but don’t know us for taking action on Haiti and other timely issues,” says Gabe Kosowitz, acting brand marketing manager. “We have so many stories of findings and explorations in arts, culture, and scientific research. Others were telling those stories for us, so now we’re putting those people forward and letting them shine. From the branding perspective, we are putting our stories and content first, and branding second.”

Smithsonian websites now feature pages devoted to work conserving and restoring coral reefs, its education programs, and the recovery of cultural treasures in the aftermath of the earthquakes in Haiti.

As advice to other nonprofits in keeping their brands relevant, Feldenkris of NPR says, “More and more, the line between testing concepts before launching them versus learning and optimizing on the fly is evaporating—especially when it comes to social media platforms. It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure there are many cylinders firing.”

Refining how nonprofits reach their audiences is critical to remaining relevant, but it all starts with a commitment to clearly defining the brand and keeping it strong. 

“Maintaining your brand is an ongoing process that requires investment. People in the nonprofit sector significantly underestimate the money that is required for a successful branding effort,” says Burch from Volunteers of America. “You need to understand the resources required for improving your brand awareness over the long term.” 

“In a crowded nonprofit world, staying relevant and conveying the impact we have in the world is critical to our success,” says deBerge of Make-A-Wish. “If we don’t, people will move on to the next organization.” 

How Leading Nonprofit Brands Stay RelevantThe preceding is a guest post by Howard Adam Levy, president of Red Rooster Group, a branding agency that specializes in nonprofit organizations.

Topics: branding