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Nonprofit Branding: Unveiling the Essentials

An organization's greatest asset is its brand. Branding is the process of creating a clear, consistent message about your organization, so that when people see your logo or hear your name, they'll think of your mission and programs in terms you have defined. I.e., the way you want them to.

In graduate school recently, I drew on 18 years' practical experience in marketing to look at nonprofits and branding. I found that nonprofits devote little time, energy, and care to branding, and that they generally relegate this process to a lower-level functionary.

The reason why is readily apparent: daily responsibilities and thin resources give nonprofit executives little time for the reflection that effective brand management requires. The purpose of this article is to help busy nonprofit managers by distilling the essentials of branding in a simple and concise fashion.

Four Steps

  1. Define your overall brand perception today.
    Step back and view your organization through the eyes of a potential donor. What do people see as your organization's mission? What do they think are its most important activities? How do they define your goals? If you don't like what you see, it's time to roll up your sleeves and evaluate every facet of your brand.

  2. Describe your goal for your brand.
    Every organization should ask itself, "What is the one thing that we do better than anyone else?" To be a meaningful brand, your cause must be a first—a new category, approach, or service that hasn't been exploited.

    My master's thesis focused on a nonprofit organization that had many competitors in a crowded market space. What set them apart was that they were a fully functioning village. The organization slowly shifted its brand perception from a decentralized rescue mission to a community that integrates a variety of functions (meals, shelter, education, behavior enhancement, hope, etc.) under one roof. This concept has the potential to become a powerful new brand position in the local community, one whose attributes are easily recognizable and unique.

  3. Create a plan to reach the brand goal.
    This step bridges the gap between the current perception of your brand and your brand goal. As with any planning process, a series of activities that culminate in a brand shift takes time and patience. Great brands are not invented overnight; achieving them requires careful planning and attention to detail. A brand that lives on in the mind of each donor must be developed through years of message layering. One Super Bowl ad just won't cut it!

  4. Make the brand live throughout your organization.
    Finally, the key to successful branding is top-down commitment and involvement. The greatest stumbling block to achieving a brand goal lies in its execution; most plans are written and then collect dust on the shelf. Brand planning requires daily attention for progression and change to occur.

    Once your brand is defined, every facet of your organization should be centered on that mission. Aside from the change in external messages, a separate campaign to inform, educate, and acquire buy-in from everyone associated with your nonprofit is essential. In order for the new brand perception to be realized, it can't be the latest management fad—it needs to reside in the hearts and minds of every single board member, paid employee, and volunteer! My research indicates that monthly, weekly, and even daily meetings are needed to ensure that a consistent message is delivered and acted on.


The four essentials of branding provide nonprofits with a structure from which to reflect on their own brand processes. All brands should be re-evaluated continuously to ensure that the message and delivery of services support each other. Analyzing the present perception of your brand and projecting a future brand goal lead naturally into the planning process. Integrating the entire organization into the execution of the plan is critical for realizing the brand promise.

Bill Nissim, October 2004
© 2003, 2004, Bill Nissim

Bill Nissim consults with nonprofit organizations on brand-management issues. He developed brand strategies for Parker Hannifin and wrote his graduate thesis on nonprofit branding methodologies. Bill received his bachelor's degree in advertising, master's in communications, and is in pursuit an MBA in change management. His Web site,, contains reference materials, links, and helpful articles on the many facets of branding.
Topics: Communications