We hear this remark fairly often, whether we are out at events, talking to people within the nonprofit world or even when first meeting with potential clients. There seems to be a common belief that these two things don’t mix. Oil and water. “ We’re a nonprofit and we don’t need it”. Or plug in the variations: “we can’t afford it, it’s just not for us, we do fine without it”
First let’s define brand:
My favorite definition comes from Marty Neumeier, “it’s not what you say it is, it’s what THEY say it is.”
In other words, it’s what people say about your organization when you aren’t around. It’s this collective, overall association and impression that people form based on their experience and interaction with your organization.
Think of your brand as your reputation. Would you ever say you don’t need a reputation? You have a reputation, whether you want to or not. The same is true of your brand. What would most people say about your organization? Do they know what you do? Do they think you do a good job? What kinds of things have they heard about your organization? If you asked 10 different people, would you get very similar answers or would you get many different answers?[featured]So, you do have a brand whether you planned to or not. The big question is whether you are taking any control of it or just leaving it up to chance.[/featured] Since the strength of an organization’s brand (reputation) will impact both short and long term success, it’s critical to take responsibility and guide it in the direction that you want it to go.
While you may not have “competition” in the traditional business sense, there are an enormous amount of options for people looking to support a worthy group. Organizations absolutely compete for limited resources including staff, board members, donors, community support, volunteers and local business support. Are you giving people a reason to choose your organization over another? Without making connection and giving someone a compelling reason to choose your organization—they likely won’t.
People will choose an organization that has made a strong impression on them. One that has made an emotional connection. When I first moved to San Francisco I knew I wanted to spend some of my time volunteering. I went to a few different orientations and what I heard from P.A.W.S. cemented a weekly volunteer shift that lasted over 10 years until I moved back to the east coast. This organization sprung out of one that had been bringing meals to homebound people affected by HIV/AIDS. Those volunteers noticed people weren’t eating their meals—they were saving them for their pets. People were going hungry because they weren’t able to get out and get food for their pets. These pets were often times the main emotional support for them. This grabbed my heart and never let go.
This is part of what strong branding can do for you: P.A.W.S. was crystal clear about their mission. Their message to me was I can immediately and positively make an impact in someone’s life by volunteering with them. Not only did I volunteer, but I told everyone I knew about the wonderful work this organization was doing. What is this kind of enthusiasm worth?
It is critical for the health of most organizations to attract people, to develop and maintain relationships with those who will support the organization and help reach its goals. Support will come from people who have consistently good experiences with your organization. This is going to be a challenge for groups that send inconsistent or mixed signals out in the world.
Take charge of your reputation (brand) and use every opportunity to foster the perceptions people get about your organization. Create positive experiences for people interacting with your group. Be clear about your mission. Be consistent. In time you will feel confident that when you leave the room people are saying good things. You are a nonprofit, and you need branding.