Elevate Your Nonprofit Brand in 9 Steps
Pam Georgiana, MBA is the Vice President of Engagement for Lutheran Social Services in Ohio. She is a marketing strategy professional with more than 20 years of experience in experiential and relational marketing, communications, and branding. She is passionate about identifying trends, brainstorming innovative engagement ideas and creative brand messaging and turning them into impactful strategies that change the world.
You may have the perception that the word “brand” strictly refers to cosmetic elements, such as your logo or your website. And while your organization’s brand is reflected in your visual identity, it’s also much more than that. Part of your brand is how people feel when they hear your organization’s name or read an appeal. Your brand is present in your mission, your values, and your messaging.
As such a crucial part of your nonprofit, a brand needs to be nurtured and should evolve alongside your organization. If you’re concerned that your brand may be outdated or if you’ve added programs or services, a refresh can help bring a burst of new energy to your brand without losing the recognition or affinity that you’ve already built.
When an organization refreshes their brand, they are not undertaking a complete rebrand, but instead updating visuals and messaging. Nevertheless, considerable thought should be put into anything having to do with your brand. Don’t just refresh because you are bored. Make sure that a refresh will elevate the brand, not harm it.
Step 1: Do Your Research
Your constituents are your best source to find out how your brand is perceived. To encompass your entire audience, this should include your donors, volunteers, clients or the recipients of your services, employees, community leaders, and corporate partners. Gather a cross-section of these people and ask a series of simple questions in focus groups, online surveys, or in-person interviews.
The goal is to understand the sentiment behind your brand, awareness for your organization, who your constituents feel your competitors are in terms of services offered and share of purse, and perhaps most importantly, who exactly your constituents are.
Sample questions include:
- What three words would you use to describe this organization?
- What services do you think are the most important for us to provide our beneficiaries?
- Which organizations have you donated to in the last 12 months?
- How likely are you to recommend this organization to friends and family as an organization worthy of donations?
The last question is the classic Net Promoter Score (NPS) metric, which has been proven to measure the level of engagement supporters have with an organization or business. This is a critical metric for any organization to track.
The scoring for this “Would you recommend” question is based on a 0 to 10 scale. An NPS can be as low as −100 or as high as +100. A positive NPS is good, a NPS of 50 or more is excellent, and anything over 70 is exceptional. If the NPS is negative, there is work to do to create more positive sentiment for your brand and ultimately build loyalty.
Your results from this research will give you baseline information on where your brand is strong and where it can improve. If you feel you need dig even deeper, review national and local studies on brand or find a research firm willing to do a study for you at a discount or pro bono.
Step 2: Update Your Personas
The next step is to use all of this newfound data to build your brand refresh action plan. First, update your constituent personas so that you know who your brand is interacting with. Personas are used to understand your target audiences and how to engage with them in a way that is impactful to not only your constituents but also to your brand.
You may already have donor personas, but don’t forget to create (or update) personas for your volunteers and beneficiaries. These are important partners in your mission and you should be just as strategic in how you communicate with them. The more accurate detail you put into these personas, the easier it will be to know how to refresh your brand and communicate the refresh effectively.
Once your personas are updated, you can then turn your attention to the elements of your brand. The goal is to ensure that your brand will match the needs and wants of your critical constituents. If it does not, tweak those elements so that they are more impactful.
For example, if your direct mail donors respond to messaging regarding one program over another, make sure to lead with a targeted ask and images for that program on your direct mail appeals. Or, if your sustaining donors are asking for more information on their impact, add concrete results copy into their quarterly email updates.
Step 3: Review Your Brand Personality and Tone
A brand’s personality is a set of human characteristics attributed to your organization while the tone is the reflection of that personality. Your constituents should be able to relate to both of these facets of your brand, but if there are inconsistencies with how you describe your nonprofit and the way your supporters do—it’s time for a refresh.
For example, if donors say your personality is traditional, but you’ve been writing content that includes slang and online acronyms, they may not be feeling a connection to your organization.
In addition to inconsistencies, there could be a clear disconnect between your brand personality and your mission. This was one of the reasons why my organization rebranded a few years ago. We are a faith-based organization but we are not affiliated with a church. We found in our research that many of our constituents thought we were a church and needed to be a member in order to receive services.
During the rebrand, we distributed a clear statement to all employees that outlined our mission and our faith-based values but also clearly stated that we are not affiliated with any religious organization. Now, every employee has the language to clearly explain our position when asked, “Are you a church?”
Step 4: Agree on Your Ideal Brand
You can be somewhat aspirational with a refresh but keep your efforts rooted in what you’ve heard from your constituents. Think about your brand personality and tone and ask yourself the following questions:
- What image do you want to project to the world?
- How is it different than what you heard in your research?
- How you would like your constituents to engage with you both now and in the future?
- Does this ring true with our nonprofit’s founding story and mission?
Once you have your constituents’ feedback and your team has agreed on your ideal brand, you can begin to implement changes. For example, if your supporters think your brand is traditional but you’d like to be seen as innovative, you can start to build a brand personality that reflects that shift with small changes in copy and images.
Step 5: Review Your Messaging
As you explore updating your brand personality and tone, review your messaging as well. This is the perfect opportunity to add more active language and power words, to establish new taglines or slogans, and update your program descriptions and beneficiary stories. Remember that storytelling is the most impactful way to inspire action and engagement. Ask yourself: is this the most compelling way to share our mission and impact?
For marketing messaging such as tag lines or slogans, it’s best to use language that can grow with your brand and will resonate in different locations (on a website, flyer, campaign page, etc.). You should also make sure to check in with your supporters and perform research before adopting anything new.
For example, my organization debated using the tag line “Each Life Matters”. This tag line connected directly to our purpose statement and our mission but was problematic given the similarity to the Black Lives Matter movement. We didn’t want to be seen as co-opting or minimizing this important movement at worst, or tone-deaf at best. However, we couldn’t agree on a suitable alternative, so we tabled the choice of a new tagline for our rebrand. Meanwhile, our mission statement “Creating a Better World by Serving People in Need” serves as a tagline for now.
Step 6: Review Your Visual Identity
Visual elements have a strong impact on your brand, even when they appear to be simple. Any design professional will tell you that there is no such thing as a “simple” redesign. Design changes aren’t made lightly and have an impact beyond what the average user may notice.
If your nonprofit isn’t in the position to change your logo or design a new website, find other ways to make an impact like incorporating new colors into your palette, adding a font, or updating photography.
Pro Tip: Many nonprofits cannot afford professional photo shoots so we end up using stock photos or the same images over and over again. Shop around to find a new set of stock photos or better yet, find a photographer who is willing to volunteer their time to take photos at your next event in exchange for a sponsorship mention.
Step 7: Audit Your Materials
Pull all your marketing materials so that you can audit what needs to be updated. This should include case statements, brochures, letterhead, business cards, envelopes, flyers, and signage. Don’t forget to review your digital platforms as well including websites, internal and external apps, internal and external databases, and social media platforms.
This will likely be a long list, so prioritize what is front and center and then set a reasonable timeline to get everything else done after the launch.
Step 8: Achieve Internal Buy-In
You’ll need ambassadors to continually help you build your brand and your employees are your first line of defense when it comes to reputation management. You need them to be completely on board and in the know on any brand refresh you are planning. This means not just what you are planning but why.
Take some time before a brand refresh launch to meet with employees and explain the process you went through to get to the decisions you made. Show them the research you collected, the iterations on design and messaging you considered, and the decisions you made.
All of your hard work will not be as successful if an employee can’t articulate to a donor or client why your brand colors have changed from royal blue to navy blue or why your tagline is different.
Step 9: Launch
The word “launch” may be a bit of a misnomer here. A brand refresh launch does not have to be a big deal and you may be setting higher expectations that you want by creating a scene. However, you do need to set a date in which you flip the switch and the new replaces the old. That’s your launch.
Make sure that all updates to your website and social media accounts are completed by this day. Even if you decide to launch quietly, don’t be afraid to talk about the changes you made on your public platforms. It’s a good idea to post an announcement about your refresh to reduce confusion among your supporters and celebrate the refresh as a milestone for your organization.
Refreshing your brand can seem like a scary endeavor for a nonprofit relying on their supporters’ perceptions and sentiment to bring in donations, loyalty, and time investments. But a strategic refresh can highlight all of the good that your organization is doing, bring in a new set of supporters, and re-engage existing supporters. Make it a point to at least review your brand every decade and refresh as needed in order to keep your organization viable and relevant in our ever-changing society.
Design Basics for Nonprofit Professionals
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