Nonprofit branding and the role of organizational culture



I’ve watched the evolution of nonprofit branding since the topic first hit The Chronicle of Philanthropy years ago.

Thankfully, a group of marketing thought leaders—including people like Seth Godin and Chris Brogan—have helped shift branding from a selling strategy to more of an organizational development strategy, with emphasis on exceeding customer demand, being a good community member, and creating loyal tribes.

I’m just one of many “thought-followers” on this topic, but I’m intrigued by the important role that organizational culture plays in nonprofit brands. So, I’m adding my two cents to what greater minds have already shared. Be sure to check out some of their insights in the links below.

Modern branding places control of your brand with your supporters and potential supporters. Their feelings and perceptions about your organization are your brand.

Their perceptions hinge on 1) how well their interactions with your organization meet their needs—not just tangible needs, but intangible needs like connection, participation, contribution, trust, even delight; and 2) the opinions of people they trust.

Let me add, your supporters are networked, smart, and can spot “spin” a mile away.

So, if they’re smart and their perceptions are your brand, how can you influence them? One way is by looking to your organizational culture; how you behave. As brand expert Marty Neumeier says: “A living brand is a pattern of behavior, not a stylistic veneer.”

Your print and electronic communications are your organization’s appearance.  How your organization behaves is its character. Appearance is important, but solid, long-lasting relationships are based on character, and the best gauge of that is your organizational culture.

Should you behave in dishonest, irresponsible, thoughtless, greedy, self-centered ways—today’s smart markets are going to know it. They won’t trust you and they won’t support you—no matter how emotionally moving your annual report, how well differentiated your market position, or how consistent your messages. There are no secrets, no hiding places, no rugs to sweep broken promises under. The culture of your organization is transparent, whether you want it to be or not. It shines through in every interaction.

Here are a few things to consider as you think about how your culture affects your brand.

  • The branding process is a two-way conversation between the inside (your organization’s staff/board) and the outside (your organization’s supporters). Two sets of real human beings. Your staff/board makes a promise to your supporters to accomplish a specific social change within a specific population and geography. (It’s important to be clear and focused about the promise you’re making. Make sure you have the capacity to fulfill it. ) At the same time, you make a promise to yourselves—and to your supporters—that you will live out a particular set of values in your work. Hopefully, those values include honesty, responsibility, fairness, generosity, reliability, and compassion. Every participant in your organization needs to know them by heart, and clearly understand what value-based behaviors are expected of them. Not just for the good of your supporters, but for the good of your internal culture. Your CEO plays an essential role in setting the tone and modeling your organizational culture, and the marketing department helps create communications products. But your “brand team” is your entire board and staff. Your “brand voice” is the human voice. Ideally, there should be no difference between internal and external behavior.  Staff and board treat each other as generously as they treat supporters. What you see is what you get. That’s authenticity.
  • It’s important for your staff/board to understand all the dimensions of this two-way conversation, which extend far beyond printed and electronic communications. Whether it’s the receptionist greeting a visitor, the voicemail message that callers get after hours, the magazines on the table in your lobby, a meeting between a board member and a potential donor, a site visit or client interview, a small group tutorial, a large conference, a chance meeting with a supporter outside of work—every interaction related to your work is a moment of relationship-building and branding. In those moments you make the choice to act on your organization’s values; you make the choice to keep the promise. This even extends to the choices you make about your office space.

  • Take responsibility for what goes wrong or falls short. Remember, this conversation is between human beings. No human being is perfect, and most of the time owning up leads to forgiveness and even support. Carlo Questa, of Creation in Common, suggests you set milestones for yourself along the path to your promise, and let staff/board and supporters know that at those junctures you’re going to be providing status reports. When you hit a milestone, if your success isn’t what you hoped it would be, let people know why you think that happened and how you’re going to make a mid-course correction. Either try a different tack or revise your promise. Be flexible and humble enough to embrace new ideas. Carlo also advises not making excuses about “external forces” beyond your control more than once. And, make sure to tell your supporters how you’re going to adjust to those forces in order to succeed.
  • Align your appearance with your character. Make sure your values come through loud and clear in the design and the content of your communications. Try to avoid exaggeration, vagueness (from either laziness or the desire to hide something), claiming victory too soon, withholding information in the hope that no one will notice, and trying to look like something you’re not. Don’t assume you know what your supporters want from your communications—ask them every chance you get (without becoming a nuisance.) These few communications are under your control—unlike much of the rest of the conversation. Don’t waste the chance to meet the needs of your supporters while clearly demonstrating your progress on the promise.
  • Open your ears and doors. Show supporters that you’re interested in them as people not just wallets or volunteers. Think about how your work and your promise can help them fulfill their own aspirations. Ask their opinions and preferences through polls on your Web site and social media sites, or make sparing use of online instruments like SurveyMonkey. Use results to help guide your decision-making. (Author and PR strategist Geoff Livingston recommends developing a process for collecting and vetting all your stakeholders’ feedback–not just with the communications department, but with the entire organization.) If your supporters are on FaceBook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., have a convenient presence there. Communicate with them when you’re not asking for money or support—check in, invite them to visit or to call with questions, make sure they know about your events, ask them if there is any way you can help (information, referrals). When you’re interacting with them, be fully attentive. Be the kind of friend you want them to be.

Nonprofits are not corporations. Their work will never be, nor should be, entirely shaped by consumer opinion and demand. But, working as they do on programs to promote the common good, shouldn’t nonprofits be modeling behavior that contributes to the common good? Take a closer look at your organizational culture—does it really reflect the kind of values you embrace?

Your culture is a great place to start living your brand. In fact, it may be the only place you can.

What are your ideas about nonprofit brands?

The Brand Gap, Marty Neumeier, Neutron LLC

Nonprofit Branding, Carlo Cuesta, Creation in Common

Worried about your branding? What exactly are you worried about? Steve Cebalt, Main Street Marketing



One Response to “Nonprofit branding and the role of organizational culture”

  1. bob crawshaw Says:


    This is a very, very good post.

    It mirrors many of the issues we cover in our Australian workshops for not for profit organisations.

    Well done on your mixture of eloquence and common sense.


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