By Jocelyne Daw
I recently returned from spending a weekend with senior staff and volunteer leaders of one of Canada’s largest nonprofit organizations. An iconic organization with a proud history and strong track record of over 100 years, it was grappling with some fundamental questions:
How does it make its organization stand out?
How does it help everyone truly understand and appreciate the important work that it does?
How does it continue to advance it’s mission and stay relevant?
How does it get people to support it’s organization with their hearts, hands and pocketbooks even though they may have no personal experience with it’s mission?
How does it create deeper, more meaningful relationships with employees, volunteers, donors and other stakeholders–relationships that stand the test of time, regardless of the inevitable political or economic climates that affect budgets and funding?
These are not unique questions. Many nonprofit organizations – large and small – are asking the same ones. Bestselling business author and social sector observer Jim Collins wrote, “There is no law of nature that the most powerful will inevitably remain at the top.” In his book How the Mighty Fall, he states, “Any company can fall and most eventually do.” Could this also be true in the nonprofit sector? As the community and philanthropic marketplace becomes more crowded, competitive and complex, nonprofits are beginning to realize that age, size and even strong community presence no longer guarantees success. So what does?It begins with a nonprofit’s brand. But this may sound unusual. How could something so connected to the corporate sector be so relevant to nonprofits?What is a Brand? A brand is more profound than an organization’s logo, tagline, communications or mission statement. It is that central idea that underpins a nonprofit’s mission–that clear combination of history, philosophy and experiences–that determines the essence of an organization and what it stands for, not just the way it looks or sounds to the outside world.Like my friends at the emblematic organization, I see more and more nonprofits realizing they have a brand – whether they make it a priority or not. Leading organizations across the country are beginning to understand the importance and value of their brands. They are strategically building and managing their brands as a central organizational driver and an important asset.When to Re-brandA brand is a long-term investment, not a one-time purchase. Continual micro adjustments ensure that the brand stays relevant and introduces the innovation needed for ongoing impact. However, organizational changes and the evolving marketplace require that nonprofits make regular brand check-ins, occasional brand tune-ups, and sometimes a complete refuel so that the brand remains fresh and continues to foster constituent allegiance.If a nonprofit has experienced any of the following, it should consider reassessing its brand and the alignment between its brand and organizational strategies.Internal Organizational Changes
Significant organizational growth
Change of strategic direction that results in a new organizational mission
Broadening geographic or demographic reach
Mission drift through the expansion of services into new areas
Merger of two or more organizations
Declining revenues or membership base
External Marketplace Forces
Evolving constituent needs or cultural trends
New organization with similar mission enters marketplace
Major competitor fails, significantly missteps, or shifts mission
Change in technology threatens programs or creates new opportunities
Major and far-reaching social and/or economic shifts
Determining the Type of Brand Work Needed Once an organization has determined that it should pay attention to its brand, it must consider that not all brand work is created equal. Organizational goals and the state of the current brand will determine the level and type of effort required to find a brand’s the authentic meaning. Several options follow.
Creation: Creating a new organization requires establishing a brand. This is an exciting opportunity to clearly define the organization’s authentic meaning, making it personally and emotionally relevant to constituents it seeks to engage.
Revitalization: This is the most common type of branding work. It can be as simple as clarifying the brand meaning or as involved as focusing all of the organization’s efforts or expanding the brand meaning.
Repositioning: A much more radical approach than the previous ones, this involves changing what the brand stands for. The organization might be moving in a completely new direction as a result of a number of factors, such as having successfully solved the original cause issue or because of new information or marketplace competition.
I was thrilled with the outcome of our weekend’s work. Like our breakthrough nonprofit brands, my friends are not assuming its brand is resonating with key audiences. The organization is willing to take a brave and honest look at current perceptions of the organization and ask, “What is breaking through, and where is there a disconnect? Where are we falling down, and what do we do better than any other organization? How can we align our strengths and engagement strategies to become a life-changing force in the world?”By being brave, bold and proactively challenging traditional assumptions and attitudes, they have the opportunity to avoid Jim Collin’s predication that long time, well known organizations can fall.