Four Stages of a Nonprofit Branding Cycle

Author: Remya Thomas

Whether you are a new organization going through the critical (and often laborious) process of finalizing your mission statement, or a mature organization trying to integrate and redefine your online and offline personality, branding is an important part of a nonprofit’s identity.

As stated in a Harvard University discussion paper, “Effective branding is becoming a central concern of leaders across the nonprofit sector as many nonprofit managers feel increasing competition from other nonprofits, for-profit businesses, and new organizations that claim to blur the boundaries between nonprofit, for-profit, and public sectors.”

With inexpensive graphics tools and exciting social media opportunities, a well designed brand image is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but of incredible value to an organization.  A strong brand image conveys an appealing and consistent image across mediums, stimulates engagement, confirms credibility and ultimately motivates action and advocacy for your nonprofit.

Nonprofits that are perceived to have clear, identifiable social good values in sync with its mission are at a strategic advantage over ones with vague goals or unclear identities. There are different approaches to a successful branding process, but the main goal should be to start, or continue, a conversation to build a lasting relationship with stakeholders. Here are four stages of the branding cycle that could support your mission –

Awareness Stage – A nonprofit brand becomes a true asset when the mission and values are aligned with its brand identity and external image.   For a new nonprofit, it is important to think of how, when and where will your audience learn about your brand.  For a nonprofit that has been around a few years, an objective brand audit, from the perspective of your key stakeholders, and a competitor analysis is critical to know the state of your current communications and identify new branding opportunities.  A strong brand’s engagement with its target audience should not be limited to form (website), place (office location) or time (launch of a campaign) and must be representative of your mission and services in any communication.

Result: A brand audit and a competitor analysis will give you a good sense of (1) the qualities that differentiate you from your competitors (2) any inconsistencies in major public-facing expressions of your brand, like the website or brochures (3) opportunities that are being under-utilized, which could lead to expanded services or increased donor pool (4) improved cohesion of your internal and external messaging and its lasting resonance.

Engagement Stage – An emblematic word for a 2012 nonprofit brand should be “engage”.  What opportunities do you provide for meaningful engagement with your brand? Engaging prospective donors is no longer a job limited to the CEO or the Development Director; a donor could be talking to anyone from your board, executive staff, management, operations and even support staff.  Is she hearing the message you want ‘heard’ about your brand? Will she be able to figure out your brand positioning and connect with the team via your website and social media channels?

Result: The ability to engage in an effective and timely manner will give your nonprofit a leg up, as it is often seen as a weak point for nonprofits.  Increasingly, strong brand messaging encourages two-way communication, builds credibility, galvanizes support, and maintains focus on the social mission.

Preference Stage – To quote Maya Angelou, “people don’t remember what you say; they don’t remember what you do. They remember how you made them feel.” When building your brand’s story, think of the ‘educated philanthropist’ and ask why she should care about your brand.  Most donors want to feel part of the cause, so your messaging has to speak the language that will inform and motivate them.  With social media flourishing, people are constantly bombarded with untargeted messages. Therefore, it is all the more critical that your brand message is not adding to the noise but is clear, concise and customized for your target audience.

Result: When donors have to choose, the clarity of your brand message, quality of your engagement, and credibility of your impact will be the tipping points of that choice.  While external rating systems like Charity Navigator play a big role at this stage, a savvy nonprofit brand who knows its audiences will gain a preferred status in many minds.

Action Stage – This is holy ground for your nonprofit, when your effort has to turn into results.  If your previous interactions with prospects were effective, converting them into donors, advocates, volunteers, or Board Members should not be too difficult.  The key point to remember is to know what to ask.  Not everyone is the right fit to be a Board Member, voter, or major-gift donor.  The brand affinity you have built with your prospects should be augmented with appropriate communications to gain your desired outcome.

Result: Whether your goal is a donation to an online fundraising campaign, soliciting a major-gift, or increasing Twitter followers, an appealing brand can drive action and loyalty by customizing interactions and communications.

A nonprofit branding strategy is nested in organizational strategy.  Improvements in organizational capacity, reputation and social impact will affect and strengthen brand identity and any reversal of fortune could have negative brand equity as well.  Integrating the entire organization and its stakeholders into the execution of the branding process as it goes through the four stages is critical for a nonprofit for realizing the brand promise.

This article was originally published through ConceptLink.

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