In the nonprofit sector, we sometimes market services and occasionally a product, but most frequently, we market “heart.” The by-product of our existence has more importance than any consumer product can muster. The results of our success affect others. If a product fails to live up to its reputation, a consumer can ask for a refund or simply choose not to buy it again. But at a nonprofit, we typically help people (or animals) live a better quality of life—an outcome that cannot be refunded or returned.
So, how do you differentiate yourselves from others to access the funding dollars you desperately need? How can you create a brand without spending a fortune? Focus on the cornerstones of a brand: name, packaging, history, reputation, and customer experience.
If your name says it all and has brand recognition, keep it. Work with it. The American Cancer Society doesn’t need to explain what it does. because it’s self-evident. Similarly, names like the Phoenix Art Museum or the National Center for Victims of Crime give prospective supporters a good idea of their mandates. If you don’t have a large marketing budget, this is half the battle—name recognition.
If your organization’s name doesn’t speak to who you are, and you don’t have big bucks to build your brand, confusion can result. Compassionate Friends or Concern America may be worthy organizations, but just from their names alone, it’s difficult to tell what they do. In these cases, it takes a strategic approach and money to build brand equity—the public image they impart. If there are no options here, then develop a tagline that sets you apart and hints at what you stand for. Use it on every piece of communication to help build recognition for your cause or mission.
Packaging need not refer to a tangible product. Packaging is how your organization puts itself together. How is it “wrapped” or presented to your constituencies? Does your direct mail have a similar look or feel to your brochures or annual report? Are there common denominators that “brand” your organization? Work with marketing communications professionals or volunteers to conduct a communications audit of your existing materials. Ensure that your staff is not distributing materials they developed themselves that look like a young student created and photocopied it. Cheap, poorly designed materials can destroy your credibility more than you can imagine. Hire specialists or ask design students or volunteers for assistance.
Develop a new look every 2 to 3 years to keep fresh. This does not mean changing your logo, name, or corporate stationery. This relates to the standards you use for all your communications vehicles. What font and colors do you use? What graphics and images do you use to convey your message? Establishing a manual will help guide your staff and volunteers in using the same standards. Consistency is the key here to build your brand.
I used to think that a nonprofit’s history couldn’t possibly interest anyone. Every time I heard about my former organization’s origins, I would gag and ask, “But how are we relevant to today’s donor or client?” That’s only true to a point. Without overindulging your organization’s history in print, longevity in the nonprofit world can increase credibility, bringing value to your organization just as it would in the consumer world.
Tell your story in a few sentences on your Web site in “Who We Are” or “About Us” pages or in your corporate brochure. I wouldn’t recommend a diatribe. Connect the dots from your origin to your organization’s relevance today, explaining how you bring your mission full circle. Supporters typically help organizations whom they believe are worthy and do good work. Your history helps to sustain that.
This is a key brand ingredient for nonprofits and is heavily weighted. It can set you apart, or erode your existence. One negative media report on a nonprofit can set it back to the point where it may not recover. A nonprofit’s main asset is its reputation. A product like Tylenol, which had its share of brand erosion several years ago after they recalled bottles following incidents of tampering, recovered with good PR tactics and investment.
The public, however, has higher expectations for nonprofits and sets the bar at a different level where skepticism rules. Ensure that everything you do furthers your mission each day. Develop a crisis communications plan long before you need one. Conscript a risk assessment committee and conduct an assessment for the entire organization. Just knowing where your gaps and weaknesses lie, then making modifications may help avert future disasters.
Every donor, volunteer, staff member, or prospective supporter is your customer. Their experiences at every organizational touchpoint help establish their impressions and may make the difference between their support and avoidance. From the person who answers your telephone, or the staff who respond to donation receipt questions, each individual plays a significant role in this experience and thus builds your reputation.
Hire a market research company to conduct mystery shopper calls to your organization using different scenarios, or conduct a survey of those who have used your services or made gifts to your organization. If you don’t have the funds, conscript marketing students or your lay committee. This will help you identify the gaps that need zapping. Develop a customer service manual for staff and volunteers that outlines your protocols and standards, and then reward those who model it well.
Understanding what branding is in the nonprofit sector is only the beginning. Being proactive will help reap the benefits of increased exposure, revenue, and volunteers. In this competitive marketplace, nonprofits need to differentiate themselves from the throngs of other choices. Make your case for support easier to convey by defining your brand, living it, and refining it when necessary. And when you can afford it, bring in marketing communications specialists to guide you. You can’t afford NOT to market and brand effectively today. It’s an investment in your organization’s tomorrows.
Elaine Fogel is president and CMO of Solutions Marketing & Consulting LLC, a boutique-style agency with a strong focus on nonprofit and public organizations. Elaine is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs.com and its Daily Fix blog—rated in the top five marketing blogs. She chairs the American Marketing Association’s Nonprofit Special Interest Group and is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ international communications and marketing committee. Her articles have appeared in many marketing and nonprofit publications. You can reach Elaine at [email protected].
This article first was originally published on December 13, 2007 based on a December 23, 2004 article in Today’s Fundraiser. It has been updated.
© Elaine Fogel 2004