Detailed Answers to Your Nonprofit Brand Identity Questions

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Revisiting Nonprofit Brand Identity

We had the pleasure of hosting Tony Sasso of Liberty in North Korea and Alex Rolek of Brandisty at Classy for a webinar on nonprofit brand identity. They covered everything from color palettes to messaging and the methodologies behind creating identity. We had a great time learning about branding and at the end of the session, we received more questions than we had time for.

We wanted to make sure all your questions about brand identity that came up after the webinar were addressed. Tony provided some extremely valuable and detailed responses, which are all worth a read and a share, so here it goes:

Question #1: Reconciling Money Goals with Programming Goals

“Tony talked about building the brand with the mission, vision and values of the organization as the foundation of the brand. We have a great mission/vision that conveys our work, but in actuality – in our office – our org is built completely around fundraising. Raising money is our #1 goal at all times and other things are very secondary. But, being perceived as money focused doesn’t fit with our mission/vision or give a very positive image of our brand. So how do we reconcile our #1 goal with the way our brand is felt/perceived?”

Great question. Every organization needs money. Every company needs money. Every person needs money… It’s one of the most efficient tools to get things done, but it isn’t the only tool or even most powerful. And, most importantly, money is not why your organization exist. You do not exist to raise money. This is not why the people in your office come in everyday. You began to accomplish a goal, you had a vision and built an organization to accomplish that vision.

The end goal of your organization: ending hunger in your community, increasing access to clean water, empowering youth, etc. should be the absolute number one focus of your organization and staff at all times. Every decision should be made based on one question: Will this move us closer to our vision?

Money is a tool to accomplish your vision. As an NGO, you will spend a lot of your energy fundraising, but you are not fundraising to grow a bank account, you are fundraising to accomplish a goal – so your brand should completely reflect this. It should look and feel like your number one is to accomplish a goal. If I donate to your organization, I should know that I am a part of reaching a specific goal or vision. Your supporters do not donate to see you increase your income, they donate because they believe in your vision.

Here are a few aspects of the question that add clarity to the problem:

but in actuality – in our office – our org is built completely around fundraising.”

Build your office around your goal. At Liberty in North Korea, much of our staff spends a lot of energy fundraising. We do this because each one of us knows the impact of every dollar raised and we understand how each donation funds programs that are moving us toward accomplishing our goal. We know this because we have clear metrics.

Part of our fundraising energy is spent on increasing the clarity of how every dollar contributes to our vision. This empowers our entire office to be united and working towards a common goal, no matter what different revenue streams or programs we are in charge of. We spend a lot of time REPORTING our impact internally and externally, and this keeps our focus on the end product: the impact, not the funds.

“Being perceived as money focused doesn’t fit with our mission/vision or give a very positive image of our brand.”

Of course not. Do as much as you can to remove your organization from the picture. Sounds silly right? What I mean is, your vision and goal is the change and action your supporter wants to be a part of. Let them be the organization, let them be the impact and engage with the action as much as possible.

For Liberty in North Korea, we do not just ask you to donate to our organization. We ask you to stand with the North Korean people and accelerate change inside the country. We communicate the specific ways in which we are doing that: our work or programs. For us, this means rescuing and supporting North Korean refugees and changing the narrative on North Korea. Then, we ask you to join us to accomplish this goal. There are many ways to do that, and only one of them is to donate or fundraise.

It is imperative that a supporter knows how to get involved within your structure. If it is by donating, that should be clear. BUT, more importantly they must know WHY their money is needed. You must start with the WHY when you fundraise. Don’t communicate that your organization needs funding… communicate that you have a goal and that goal needs funding.

When what people think about you (your brand) is in line with the goal you are working towards (your vision), fundraising is not about collecting money, it is about connecting a donor with the impact they are making for a particular mission. Work to connect your donors with your goal and be clear about how dollars can achieve it. WHY do you exist? That is why I want to donate to you.

It is important to not overlook proper clarity around HOW your organization works. This will improve trust with your donors. But HOW your organization does what it does (programs, fundraising, structure) is much less powerful than WHY your organization does what it does (Vision & Goal) as a communication and brand asset.

Question #2: “What did Tony have to say about competition with other organizations?”

Competition is not the best word here. We should call it energy. Here is why: If there are only a few people working on a specific goal, it would appear to outsiders that this goal is unique to this group and probably not relevant to the outsider’s life. Now, if their numbers grow and 4,000 people in the community are working towards a common goal (whether together or not) an outsider may start to see a greater relevance to their life, as they would certainly be presented with this common goal in many different ways.

Besides simply being aware of a goal as an individual, we should remember that people move in groups. It’s just how we work… If an idea is in the minds of a large portion of the population, two things will happen: some people will agree and some people will disagree, BUT, at the very least, that idea will be the topic of discussion. The point of “competition” is to make your category (issue/idea) the topic of discussion.

For NGOs, we can work to develop a category for our each of our goals. Think water. Water organizations have sprouted up and many are doing great work on the ground but also great work to grow the idea of increasing access to clean water around the world. They are increasing the category… growing the water issue in the zeitgeist discussion.

For LiNK, there exist a growing population that believes the North Korean people should live freely. This is a category that we are in, North Korea, and we work to help lead and grow this category. One way we hope the category grows is to see more groups like us start up. We want more “competition/energy” because it will be supplemental to the work we are doing towards collective action in this cause category.

When more organizations form, the “energy” will increase. More and more people will start to see this goal as relevant and important. They may choose another organization to get involved with, but that’s fine (and great), because we know it benefits our overall vision.

Kind of like this: Coke and Pepsi offer the same service, different taste and style, same service. A billboard for Coke will also benefit Pepsi. Why? Because it is growing the category of SODA, it says “Soda, is cool and popular right now.” Of course, a soda drinker will have their brand of choice, but having a population consistently reminded that there is a cool and refreshing thing called soda and you should go out and consume it is what “competition” is all about.

Question #3: “I’m curious about the idea of competition within categories. If you’re a small organization that’s been around for 15+ years, how can you compete with larger organizations? How can you lead in your category while still staying small as an organization?”

As in the previous question, don’t think about competing with other organizations. We are all in this together. Rather than win the category, help the category win. If you have been around for 15+ years, you certainly have insight and knowledge that newer organizations might need and want. An organization does not need to be the largest to make the most impact… If you can guide and bring together your category, the impact could go well beyond what each could have accomplished alone.

Every issue we work on requires multiple tactics and solutions. Organizations might well take a giant step forward by communicating and approaching their issue with the support of the whole category united. We each bring unique tools to the table and can each approach an issue from a different angle, so rather than all try to compete for a specific holy spot in the category, we can find our place and benefit the whole for a greater combined impact.

Something you can do now is differentiate yourself from the larger organizations. Show why your experience is an asset to your issue. Unite your category by leading the charge for this common goal that you have been working towards so tenaciously. Tell people why your organization must exist and persist, but also tell them about the progress you have made, what you have learned and how the issue has evolved over time.

Something you can do now is differentiate yourself from the larger organizations.

Tell people about other organizations that exist to also accomplish this goal… and tell them why each organization is uniquely beneficial to the issue, work together with them and share audiences interested in your common goal. This unites your category.

Rather than trying to do the same thing better than others, remember that each organization is approaching the specific issue with from a unique angle. Leaders unite. Lead the category by increasing the collective effort towards your common goal. If your organization can further unite your category, your size is irrelevant to the impact you will make.

People who identify with your approach will support you, and people who identify with another organizations approach will support them. The category benefits and your goal can be accomplished with a more sustainable solution because a greater number of the population was involved in the solution.

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