The Nonprofit Branding Bandwagon

I first wrote about the branding bandwagon back in 2007, when it seemed that every large nonprofit I knew was  spending serious money — and I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars —  for corporate style tag lines, logos, commercial partnerships and strategies that they thought would attract media coverage and recognition from potential donors. At the time I complained that, while I understood the desire to stand out from the crowd, I thought nonprofits’ embrace of corporate branding practices was unwise in terms of mission fulfillment. Positioning a charitable organization as a corporate brand might impress some people, I conceded, but that wouldn’t necessarily move a nonprofit toward its mission, and it might serve to undermine the credibility of other nonprofits working on the same cause.

NGO Brands

Social Change Organizations

I still hold this view and believe it is particularly true for those organizations dedicated to cultural change and social justice. Changing the world is a big and costly job. There’s plenty of work to go around, so why fight one another? It’s ironic that nonprofits are the only organizations expected to collaborate with their “competitors.” Look behind that irony, though, and you will see that there is some logic to this. There are very few, if any, nonprofit organizations that have truly unique missions. Mostly, the differences are matters of strategy and tactics – various ways of reaching similar goals and producing goods and services that benefit society. Social benefits such as housing the homeless, fighting for voting rights or preserving wilderness are not generally things from which profits can be made. That’s why nonprofit organizations exist in the first place.

Cooperation vs. Competition

In business, competition clearly drives innovation and improvement, but we need to ask ourselves if the same is really true in the nonprofit sector. When multiple organizations share a similar mission – one that is difficult and costs money rather than generates profits – it seems smarter to cooperate rather than spend resources to outshine one another. I continue to question why nonprofits — and those of us who work with them — have jumped on the branding bandwagon with so little thought of the long-term implications. I suppose the reason is based on fear. Fear of missing out on a big donation. Fear of seeing a rival quoted instead of oneself. Fear of not having clout in the advocacy arena. Advocates think — hope — that branding will position them to win and, to be frank, we consultants encourage it.

But what if nonprofits didn’t give in to the fear? What if the best of them partnered to apply jointly for funding? What if they divided up chunks of work and didn’t duplicate things that others were already doing? What if nonprofits insisted on having models of marketing, branding and communicating that were not mere grafts from the corporate world, but were designed and built just for the nonprofit universe?

A New Model

When I first asked those questions, there wasn’t much around that didn’t come right out of a typical corporate brand book. Now there is much more research being done to identify marketing techniques and ways of work that preserve each nonprofit’s distinctions, yet resist the pressure to compete when competition is unproductive. Among them is a new nonprofit branding framework developed by Harvard researcher Nathalie Kylander. Called IDEA, an acronym that stands for Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Affinity, the framework is featured in a book, The Brand IDEA, which Kylander co-authored with Julia Shepard Stenzel. It was released earlier this year by Jossey-Bass/Wiley. While I’m not entirely in love with this approach, I do think it has some constructive suggestions for nonprofit branding, particularly in its “Affinity” section.

You can read more about the role of branding in the nonprofit sector on the website of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University and in the Spring 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Reprinted with the permission of Bonnie McEwan, specializing in nonprofit communication, media and leadership.

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