Imagine you work at a nonprofit or a foundation with a decent-sized staff (a few dozen to as many as a hundred employees). It might be a national research institute or a local community development organization. It has several departments focused on different issues or areas of operation. There may be physical offices catering to different needs or populations. It might even be part of a larger network of organizations.
Whatever the situation, each day everyone comes to work and does his or her best to contribute to the organization's mission. But while there's a sense of what you're all working towards, there are disconnects. Silos and knowledge gaps are stifling innovation and affecting results. New funding streams have led to mission creep. The organization has grown, added lots of new faces, and its strategic plan needs revisiting. Staff have very different ways of talking about the organization's work.
The result is fragmentation that's making people inside the organization less effective — and is confusing lots of people outside the organization. So leadership decides it's time to address the problem by working on the organization's branding with the goal of creating clarity and getting everyone on the same page.
Falling Short of Our Goals
Branding is important to the success of any organization, but it's particularly important for those in the nonprofit sector. Social impact work is complex and often abstract; results can be more difficult to measure (and achieve) than in the for-profit world; and the temptation of new opportunities for impact (and the funding that comes with them) means mission creep is always a concern.
The struggle to channel the passion and complexity (and opinions!) associated with social impact work is real. But branding offers a way forward — a process that, when executed well, aligns a nonprofit's aspirations, operations, and communications.
Too often, however, the results, while useful, fall short of expectations. Instead of creating the strategic focus and clarity leadership had hoped for, a process filled with research, soul-searching, and valuable insights results mostly in carefully crafted content and a new visual identity. Both important things! But…the ultimate goal of strategic brand development should be more than just a new logo and improved communications materials. The real goal should be to dramatically increase an organization's ability to lead in its area(s) of focus by increasing its cohesion, capacity, and impact.
So what are the roadblocks to developing a brand that significantly improves your organization's capacity to lead on the issues it cares about most?
EBB (External Branding Bias) Syndrome
What comes to mind when we talk about branding? For most people, it's external things like reputation, messaging, design, and experiences. That makes sense. How a brand is both projected and experienced is essential to engaging the people outside an organization who benefit from and support its work. External branding is how organizations manage their relationships with people, and it's how people relate to them. Every external brand experience — online and in person — contributes to generating (or reducing) trust in, support for, and action on behalf of an organization.
Nonprofits often have a particularly strong bias towards external branding. Perhaps it's because nonprofits direct so much of their energy to collaborating with and serving others. In addition, until about a decade ago, branding was mostly viewed in the nonprofit sector as something that only applied to communications and fundraising. And most nonprofits are understandably reluctant to spend limited resources on themselves when the needs outside the organization are so pressing.
As the saying goes, "culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner." Brands are created from the inside-out, so while it's essential to use strategy to drive your external branding, using it to focus the mission and cultivate the right kind of internal behavior, actions, and, culture matters even more. After all, how can we expect people on the outside to believe in an organization's ability to make a difference if its own people don't have (and exude!) the same kind of clarity and conviction?
It's What's Inside That Matters
We tell our children not to judge others by how they look (or sound). But we're social and visual beings, and appearances do matter. Brands use design and messaging to turn what's on the inside (ideas, intentions, and abilities) into something tangible that others can experience (communications and interactions). The sum of those experiences is what people think of us. Assets like brand architecture, positioning platforms, and design systems are great for helping organizations influence the appearance of their brand and create meaningful experiences. But as we tell our kids, it's what inside that really matters.
When it comes to rebranding a nonprofit organization, in my experience leadership usually embraces this value, but only to a degree. And that’s understandable — it's hard to get too involved when there are more pressing concerns to worry about. There’s also the reality that legacy perceptions of branding as a tool for communications and development, rather than a strategic asset for mission implementation, persist. The result often is a "skin-deep" approach to brand development that leaves a lot of value on the table.
Of course, even that level of branding produces insights that can help nonprofits create more effective communications. Unfortunately, too often the work fails to go beyond the surface. Strategy stays locked-up in documents that gather dust on a shelf, momentum is lost, and the work never becomes the broader catalyst for greater impact that it was intended to be.
Nonprofits that want to use their brand to increase their impact need to design it into their organizations, not just their communications. That's how you increase the organization's perceived and actual value. And the key is a brand development process that focuses and aligns your aspirations, operations, and communications — one that improves the organization's capacity for strategic thinking, more effectively engages stakeholders both inside and outside the organization, and leads to greater impact.
After all, isn't this what most of us are looking for when we decide to work on our brand?
In Part 2, I'll go into greater detail about the benefits of an effective internal branding process and what they mean for social impact organizations. In the meantime, you can check out other articles in our Cause-Driven Design®series here.
Matt Schwartz is founder and executive director at Constructive, a New York City-based brand strategy and experience design firm dedicated to helping social change organizations achieve greater impact. He can also be found on Twitter at @matt_schwartz_.