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Navigating Nonprofit Marketing, Part 5: Empathetic Marketing & Branding

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4 recap:

  • Marketing has become a rapid, innovative growth machine
  • What is behavioral marketing?
  • Welcome nurture tracks
  • Remarketing

“Okay, we’ve optimized our site, and have created our analytics and outreach channels. Now, how will people in the digital world recognize us?” you ask.

Great question!

In Part 1 of this blog series, I said, “Before you begin extensive outreach, you must ensure that your website offers your users an optimal experience.”

If you’ve followed along and taken the steps in the prior four blog posts, then your website should be ready for oncoming traffic, and we can move on to outreach. But not before one last piece of advice from Seth Godin: “Every time you go to your site, you should ask: Who did I build this for? How did they get to my website? When they got here, what were they searching for and can they easily find it? What do I want these people to know, to learn, to understand?”

Navigating Digital Nonprofit Marketing, Part 5: Empathetic Marketing & Branding

Marketing = Empathy

Whether you are in the beginning or latter parts of your digital marketing journey, you should be asking yourself: “What does my nonprofit promise?”

When contemplating the answer to that question, I advise you to embrace your empathetic nature.

What is empathy?

Wikipedia defines empathy as:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner."

How do we use empathy in Marketing?

As you position yourself to increase donations and funding, keep your mission in mind. Marketing really plays on the art of being empathetic, and nonprofits already do that better than most. You put yourselves in the shoes of those you are trying to help. You felt how they felt, and you were inspired to start or work for a charity to effect change. Now put yourself in the shoes of the people who can help you fulfill your mission, and therein lies the art of being a marketer. How do you inspire these different personas to believe in your mission and help you help the world?

The deeper you get about understanding the change you wish to make, the people you wish to make change for, and the promise you are offering, the more likely it is the rest of your marketing will be easy to do."
—Seth Godin

Building a true, evergreen marketing strategy for your organization means building trust in your growing audience. To reach people and develop loyalty through trust, we must be intensely curious about others—how they feel, how they live, how they think, etc.

Branding a Nonprofit?

Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing nonprofit inundation. There's now a nonprofit for just about any obvious need. As Dahna Goldstein said in her blog post Don’t Do It: Don’t Start A Nonprofit, “Many of the well-intentioned people who start nonprofit organizations are then unable to marshal the necessary resources to effectively deliver on the vision and mission of the organization. Existing organizations, particularly those that rely on outside funding in the form of donations and grants, are already competing for scarce dollars.” I am not here to argue the reasons for or against starting a nonprofit. I am here to help you compete for “scarce dollars.” To compete, you need great branding.

Branding is the basis for how people perceive you and/or your organization. Human perception is a huge area of study in Marketing, and it’s what you are trying to affect with your brand. Human perception is also pretty linear in regard to associative functionality. Once we associate a brand name with a category, it's near impossible to alter that perception. Q-tip = cotton swab; BackRub = Internet Search. What, you’ve never heard of the company “BackRub?” Maybe you’ve heard of its more recent name, “Google.” Point is, you need to be very thoughtful and careful when creating a brand.

Bilal Kaiser offers a look at some thoughtful branding:

  • Lego—From the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning play well.
  • 7-Eleven—Once known as Tot'em Stores, the convenience store chain changed its name to 7-11 to reflect its extended operating hours (7 a.m. to 11 p.m.). Now that name is obsolete since most stores remain open 24 hours a day, but it's too well-recognized a brand for the company to be concerned about literal accuracy.
  • Verizon—A combination of horizon and veritas, Latin for truth.
  • Skype—First it was Sky-Peer-to-Peer (doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it?). Then the name was cut to Skyper. Finally, the founders renamed it Skype, and on that day a new verb—Skyping—was born.
  • Lenovo—“Lenovo” combines “le” from the word legend and novo, Latin for new.
  • Reebok—The athletic brand's name comes from the Afrikaans spelling of rhebok, a type of African antelope or gazelle.
  • Starbucks—Named after a character in Moby Dick by Herman Melville (sometimes you get lucky).
  • Geico—Shortened from Government Employees Insurance Company.
  • IBM—IBM founder Tom Watson Sr. left National Cash Register only to name his new company in a way that suggested even broader success: International Business Machines.
  • Nabisco—Shortened from the original company name National Biscuit Company.
  • Nike—Named after the Greek goddess of victory. A rather fitting moniker if there ever was one.

Now you may be wondering, “Why the name GuideStar?” I wondered the same thing when I first started working here more than four years ago. GuideStar was founded with the name “Philanthropic Research, Inc.” When we launched our website and online database in 1996, we called it “GuideStar.” The name was taken from modern telescope technology and refers to the role we strive to play in the nonprofit sector. A telescope in orbit stores the positions of guide stars in its database in order to calculate its own position. The GuideStar website and database serve that purpose in the vast nonprofit universe. GuideStar the website and database became synonymous with the organization, so we officially changed our name to GuideStar in 2008.

Here are two common approaches to creating your nonprofit brand:

  1. Highlight your differences. Coke might be original and classic, but Pepsi is New Generation. This is called positioning yourself opposite the market leader. By showing how you are different, not how you are the same or better, you play into the existing perception.
  2. Create a new category. This is self-explanatory and hard to imagine considering the earlier statement “there's now a nonprofit for just about any obvious need.” But if you are having trouble creating a new category, then create a hyper-focused category out of an existing brand. Craigslist started out as a classifieds website for everything including a small section for sharing apartments and renting out rooms. Airbnb is basically a massive multi-billion-dollar company built off the back of that subsection of craigslist. It focused a broad category into a small niche and created a brand-new category.

People perceive broad and generic nonprofits as “They can’t be good at everything, and my donation may not get to where I want it to go.” But when you hyper-focus on a small niche, you must be the expert, because that’s all you do. Which leads donors to think, “I know exactly where my money is going.”

Once you’ve established your brand, you’ll need:


A visual representation of your organization that people will associate with your brand, allowing for easier memory recall. It promotes instant public recognition.

All that really matters is that your logo is aesthetically pleasing, easy to see, process, and recall.

Here is a fantastic article about logos from Shopify. This blog also offers a few options on logo creators.


I've gotten into a lot of debates with people about slogans. I think a startup, should (at least initially) always have a slogan attached to its logo/ brand name. Think "GuideStar." You may not know what our organization is by name alone. Now think "GuideStar—Nonprofit Intelligence,” and our promise becomes a bit more intuitive.

The purpose of a logo is to support pass-along, or word-of-mouth, advertising. It should answer the question, “Why should I support your brand?” So, if a donor is talking to his friends about your brand, and they ask, why should we support them, his response should be your slogan.

Think of the problem your organization solves or works to solve. Use that as your guide for your name and slogan.

In my opinion, a think-tank among your friends and/or colleagues will find you a slogan, name, and logo faster than any web logo-generators.


Navigating Digital Nonprofit Marketing, Part 5: Empathetic Marketing & BrandingDavid Mundy is GuideStar's director of marketing.

Topics: Nonprofit Marketing digital nonprofit marketing