Branding is Not a Bad Word

Posted inCreative Voices

In the nonprofit world, the word ‘branding’ often gets a bad rap. It’s seen by some as a concept borrowed from the corporate sector, associated with consumerism and self-promotion.

Many people who work for nonprofits view branding as a limiting force, a set of guidelines or a box that their communications team uses to keep everything consistent, but somehow restrictive. There’s also a perception that focusing on branding means prioritizing style over substance, detracting from the altruistic mission that forms the heart of any nonprofit and diverting time and money away from on-the-ground work toward what feels like a “nice to have” initiative.

But this perspective throws out the baby with the bathwater — it ignores the important benefits of branding. The reality is that effective branding is crucial for the success of any organization, including nonprofits. Whether you have a new vision of how philanthropy can be more equitable, or a novel approach for how community safety should be defined and measured, you’re always selling something to someone and wooing them to agree with your perspective so you can build the support you need to advance your mission. In order to demonstrate the value you provide — and for people to believe you — you need to be trusted. That is your brand’s job.

Taylor Swift said it best: “We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them that they have chosen to show us. There will be no further explanation. There will be just reputation.”

For your team to understand and appreciate its power, it might be helpful to reframe the concept of branding as the management and cultivation of your organization’s reputation.

Branding as Reputation Management

At its core, a brand is not just a logo, tagline, or color scheme; those things are all important in generating a positive first impression and helping people remember your brand, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond that, your brand unlocks what people think and feel when they hear your organization’s name. It’s about the emotions and associations that come to mind, which are cultivated over time through consistent, positive experiences and interactions. This is why it’s more fitting to think of branding in terms of reputation.

Your nonprofit’s reputation (AKA, brand) encompasses everything it stands for: its values, its impact on the community, and the trust it builds with supporters, donors, and the public.

Why Reputation Matters

In the nonprofit sector, where resources are often limited and the competition for attention and funding is high, a strong reputation is a gamechanger. It can open doors to new partnerships, expand your donor base, and increase your organization’s influence. When people trust and believe in your cause, they’re more likely to support it with their time, resources, and advocacy.

Consider this: When faced with a decision to donate, volunteers and donors are more likely to choose an organization they’ve heard positive things about, one that has made a real difference in their community or the world. This is where the power of a well-managed brand comes into play. By effectively communicating your mission, values, and successes, you can forge stronger connections with your audience, making them more likely to support your cause.

Overcoming Branding Skepticism

It’s fair to say that the skepticism toward branding in the nonprofit sector is not unfounded. Many fear that too much focus on branding might lead an organization to prioritize image over impact or make it look too fancy. To overcome these fears, it’s crucial to present branding as a tool for better storytelling and engagement, not merely as a marketing strategy. The power of a good, authentic story is undeniable — and it’s something everyone can relate to. When nonprofits showcase real stories of change and impact that allow audiences to connect emotionally with their work, they are brand-building.

Impact doesn’t come at the expense of image. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Your image is a vehicle for sharing and bolstering your impact so your brand can strengthen your reputation and enable further work.

How to Frame Branding for Your Team

If your team has a negative association with branding, that’s not going to magically change overnight. To get your team on board with the idea of branding as a reputation management asset, you’re going to need to help them get there. This might require internal communication, workshops, and training sessions to help staff understand the role of branding in their day-to-day work, from fundraising to program delivery, and how it can enhance their efforts rather than restrict them. You can use these opportunities to show examples of how a strong brand has helped similar organizations achieve their goals, increase their reach, and make a more significant impact — always highlighting the power that comes from effective alignment between the brand and the organization’s core values and mission.

Building a Strong Brand

So, how can a nonprofit build a strong brand or improve its reputation? It starts with clear, consistent messaging that articulates the organization’s mission, vision, and values. This messaging should be evident in all communications, from the website and social media to fundraising appeals and reports. Transparency and authenticity play critical roles; people want to see the real stories behind the work you do, the challenges you face, the ideas and processes that guide your decision-making, and the impacts you make.

Crafting a confident and compelling visual identity is crucial in echoing your brand’s core idea across all touchpoints. This goes beyond just a memorable logo to encompass a cohesive visual language and design system that speaks to your audience — colors, typography, imagery, and design elements that resonate with your mission and values. When these visual elements are deeply rooted in your brand’s essence, they evoke the right emotions and connections in your audience’s hearts and minds and become a shorthand for everything your organization stands for.

Engagement with your people is another important aspect of building a strong brand that lasts — you always want to be learning about how your brand can better support your organization’s strategic goals throughout the lifecycle of your brand. Interact with your supporters, donors, and the broader community on an ongoing basis through various channels. Listen to their feedback and involve them in your journey. Celebrate successes together and be honest about setbacks, showing what you’re learning and how you’re growing.

Your Brand is What You Make of It

Your people might never feel fully at ease with the word ‘branding’ — that’s fine. Reputation is a much harder word to argue with because everyone can appreciate its value as a currency, so go with that.

It’s not about adopting corporate strategies wholesale or focusing on surface-level aesthetics. Instead, it’s about deeply integrating your organization’s values and mission into everything you do and communicate. By doing so, you not only enhance your reputation but also strengthen the relationships that are vital to your success.

In the nonprofit sector, where the ultimate goal is to make a positive change, a strong, well-managed reputation is one of your most valuable assets. At the end of the day, you don’t just want your organization to be known; you want it to be known for making a difference. That’s your brand’s job. Take control of it, or someone else will.

Looking for ways to get your team on board with the value of branding? Having them engage with some fundamental questions about your own brand with our free Nonprofit Brand Score tool might be a good place to start.

This essay is by Deroy Peraza, Partner at Hyperakt, a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. Originally posted in their newsletter, Insights by Hyperakt.

Illustration by Merit Myers.