The Nonprofit Brands

By Tom Dougherty

Branding nonprofits: Growing to give

Charitable giving is rising over the past couple of years with  2021 looking like a record-setting year. So why might it be important to invest in branding nonprofits?

In fact, giving increased in each of the past six years with 2021 expected to be more than last year’s historically high amounts. But rebranding nonprofits is a means to retain freshness.

branding non-profits

Image courtesy of Blackbaud Institute

Perhaps coincidently, the number of charities increased over the same period of time. So, as the appetite for giving increases so does the number of causes in which to give.

Therefore branding nonprofits and charities are becoming more and more essential in order to survive.
branding nonprofits— Traditional and new places to give

The nonprofit arena used to be comprised of the amalgamation of groups covering everything from United Way to church-based charities and to medical research foundations. But because of branding nonprofits succeeding, the stakes are higher today.

Today, that landscape is changing as charitable giving comes to the masses. Branding nonprofits has added to that change. Sites like GoFundMe and Kickstarter draw donors for the same reasons that have prompted past giving – a cause people believe in.

However, they are disrupting traditional charitable giving.

More giving, more causes to give to, and more ways to give complicate an already complicated market.

And, whether or not charities and nonprofits want to admit it, that is exactly what it is: a market. branding nonprofits should not be a dirty word.

Thinking of branding nonprofits as a competitive business.

Branding nonprofitsA market in its most fundamental form is defined as an area where buyers and sellers come together to engage in some sort of economic activity.

Think of donors as the buyers and the charities or nonprofits as the sellers.

In this model, many buyers and sellers want as much as the buyers give them. As such, buyers and sellers by default mean more competition.

Competition is a loaded concept for charities and nonprofits.

For the vast majority of charities and nonprofits,  a guiding principle of wanting to do the right thing feels in conflict with the idea of competition.

Programs that match the brand

That means creating programs or products that help people, help fund research, work to further social, economic, or religious causes or simply giving money to people who need it. It is not complicated.

branding nonprofitsWith that kind of mentality, it’s natural for charities and nonprofits to want other charities and nonprofits to succeed. They don’t view each other as a threat as they see all as basically trying to do the right thing.

This view influences the manner charities and nonprofits conduct business.

Most want to take as many cents as possible of each dollar they receive to go directly to that support.

That means wringing out waste, seeking volunteers, and employing as few as possible. Therefore, charities and nonprofits don’t invest in themselves, making the choice to give instead of growing, as if they can only do one.

Charities and nonprofits want to do more but doing more means raising more or doing more with less.

So many sit by hoping for some philanthropic savior or continue to do the same things they have always done (expecting a better result than the last time).It is surprising that charities and nonprofits fail to see themselves as brands instead of viewing themselves as causes.

Branding nonprofits and charities.

Branding nonproftisA brand is a powerful thing. At its root, the brand is a reflection of who the target believes they are, what they aspire to be, and what they believe to be true about the world.

A cause, however, is a brand of sorts, something that people support but can be supported by any number of organizations.

Because of that, causes tend to be organizational neutral. The individual brands of those nonprofits, therefore, are all the same color and no differentiation takes place.

A donor doesn’t have a reason to pick one over another.

For example, let’s say you are an NPR supporter. You move across the country.

Do you continue to support the NPR station where you once lived or do you move your dollars to the new NPR station where you live now?

With so many charities and nonprofits, these groups no longer thrive only on promoting their causes.

What do donors want?

How many cancer research nonprofits or food banks or women’s health groups are there? When does the paradox of choice come into play?

branding nonprofitsDonors want to donate to a cause but, since there are so many charities and nonprofits that support the same cause, they are fearful of making the wrong choice – or they make no choice at all.

Going back to the NPR example, the old NPR station rationalized your decision to stop funding by saying, “Well, at least they are still supporting NPR.”

Without contemplating the fact that the money that once supported them is going to another station. The new station benefits at the expense of the old.

From the outside in, this is a very myopic view of the world— as if the charity or nonprofit is inconsequential in the causes they support. What’s worse is that this view is perpetuated by the charities and nonprofits themselves.

Looking from the Outside-in

They see themselves as all in it together. That sounds aspirational but it can doom when branding nonprofits.

The use of the brand is a powerful tool for charities and nonprofits. Charities and nonprofits should be embracing their brands. For there are few categories where a brand has such an impact.

By supporting a cause that people believe in, charities and nonprofits already accomplish a monumental task in branding nonprofits.

The cause says who you are for and, more importantly, who you are not for.Branding nonprofits

What they do is give donors a reason to specifically choose them.

They have not aligned themselves with the emotional makeup of their target donors to make them believe that their individual charity or nonprofit is deserving of the charitable gift.

Nonprofits Talking to themselves

Instead, those organizations simply talk about their cause, their programs, and outreach. Making even the way most charities and nonprofits talk about those things non-differentiating.

branding nonprofitsHowever, charities and nonprofits need to fully embrace a brand. To be successful in branding nonprofits and charities they must invest in it. To most charities and nonprofits, investing means less money for the cause.

But the reality is, without investment, many charities and nonprofits are unsustainable.

The question for charities and nonprofits should be, “How can we grow in order to give more?” In order to answer that, charities and nonprofits must invest in their brands and make them meaningful to donors beyond just the causes they support.


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