Grizzled veterans of the nonprofit world might recall a time when it wasn't necessary to take an organization through a branding exercise. But those days have been gone since the turn of the millennium. A 2012 article in USA TODAY reported that close to one million U.S. charities are now registered as a 501(c)3 organization, legally empowering them to conduct fundraising campaigns. That figure rose by more than 50% since the year 2000. (Or, more accurately, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, according to one expert in quoted in the article.)
Meanwhile, the economic downturn of recent years means a smaller pie to slice among this growing number of entities. Flagging profits in the private sector impacts the size of grants from foundations and direct corporate charity, and an individual's ability to give might be negatively affected through loss of job or investment income.
Taken altogether, it's clear that establishing and clarifying your mission has become vital for aligning the values of your organization in a donor's mind while also differentiating you from other nonprofits. Of course, even in the best of times the largest nonprofits don't possess pockets with the depth of Procter & Gamble or PepsiCo. But the scale on which most organizations operate, and the built-in mindset of frugality, enable many charities to do a great deal of branding while spending very little money.
Let's look at examples from each of the four phases of a branding cycle:
1. Research. While it can be a valuable exercise to hire a professional, third-party vendor to conduct market research and compile a thoughtful evaluation of your brand, this is more of an investment than many nonprofits can afford and, honestly, may need. For one thing, nonprofits have a resource to help with research that is the envy of any business: volunteers. Harness the power of these true believers to make the phone calls and circulate the online surveys that accumulate the quantitative data about your brand. For the price of a few pizzas or even just coffee and cookies, you can host focus groups with donors, trustees, staff, and/or people in the community to learn what they feel makes your organization tick. Roger Sametz of Sametz Blackstone Associates recommends limiting group meetings to fewer than 30 people. "You usually hear the same information after speaking with 15 or so people," says Sametz.
2. Development. Odds are good that your research phase won't discover what you've been doing all along is completely wrong. So when it comes to visual representations of your brand, think refresh instead of revamp. The slightest alterations to your color palette and fonts can make your website, brochures, and other materials feel revitalized. Digital tools make it easy and cost-effective to do a lot of the design and printing in-house rather than paying an agency. Time this exercise to coincide with the need to replenish your inventory, and don't forget to involve at least some of the stakeholders from the research phase in this part as well. In the long-run, integrating their feedback galvanizes their emotional attachment to the work they've put into the rebranding as well as your organizational mission.
3. Engagement. Nonprofits typically are pretty good at this phase. They know how to search for the best deals on T-shirts, pens, tote bags, or whatever they want to give a contributor as a small token of their appreciation. Don't overlook the opportunity to partner with private businesses. Finding a local coffee roaster to contribute their product in conjunction with a coffee mug sporting your nonprofit's logo not only allows you to increase the value of your asking amount, it could also lead to that company donating a portion of its sales to your organization. Maximizing publicity opportunities is crucial here as well. If you have newspaper photographers or broadcast journalists covering an event you're hosting, make sure your brand is visible. The same goes for any images or video you post on your social media channels.
4. Evaluation. Fundraising is cyclical by nature. So there are built-in periods that enable your organization to pause and reflect on whether your branding efforts aided its goals. You can get feedback from some of the same stakeholders who have helped in the research and development phases while adding a few new voices to the mix. If all goes well, you'll have a good story to publicize about how much the success has forwarded your organizational mission.