Robert Antell and his wife, Marguerite, decided to make a break from the norm in their rural town of Perinton near the Canadian border in New York State. In 1970, the Antells built a home that most would call bizarre and others might call original. Their “Mushroom House” still stands today and is 4,200 square feet of sprouting concrete pods made to look like Queen Anne’s Lace Flower.
Modeling what already exists—in this case nature—is understandably a favorable strategy because, in most cases, it works. There are many forms of architecture that mimic nature beautifully. Depending on your taste, you might say this home is a work of art or a vision gone wrong.
In the case of nonprofits imitating corporate brand management, however, it’s not a matter of esthetics. Four authors agree it simply doesn’t work. Why? Allow me to excerpt each of their views.
Nonprofits shouldn’t imitate corporate branding
First, author Jeff Brooks in The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand says, “Simply applying the principles of commercial branding to nonprofit fundraising is exactly the wrong thing to do. It’s the cause of most branding accidents.” He further explains commercial branding does not work for nonprofit organizations because it focuses on abstract ideals of products or services. Nonprofits need to show clear, emotional images to motivate and connect with their donors. There are warning signs that your brand is too commercialized and doesn’t focus on the donor: the work is not grounded in donor behavior; the brand describes your organization in a symbolic way rather than in a clear fashion that moves donors to act; or the brand is design and little else.
Second, The Brand IDEA by Nathalie Laidler-Kylander and Julia Shepard Stenzel argues today’s brands must uphold mission impact by building trust, cohesion, capacity and impact, not necessarily qualities for which corporate brands strive. Kylander and Stenzel’s book is the result of more than two years of research and collaborative effort, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, to examine the role of brands in the nonprofit sector and recognize that nonprofits are over-relying on corporate sector practices to oversee their brands.
The coauthors’ acronym, “IDEA,” further gives us insight into honoring the truly nonprofit brand. Integrity (the “I” in IDEA) is the “alignment between the brand identity and image and the mission, values, and strategy of the organization.” Democracy is the “extent to which an organization engages its board, staff, members, participants, volunteers, supporters, and other stakeholders in both defining and communicating the brand identity.” Brand Affinity “represents a mindset and an approach to brand management in which the focus is on shared social impact, rather than on individual internal organizational goals.” Kylander and Stenzel’s brand philosophy further brings to light that corporations often look at alignment between their image and selling a product, whereas the nonprofit brand aims to move a community and achieve social impact.
Third, author Sarah Durham’s philosophy is built upon branding that is grounded in the nonprofit mission. Specifically, “brandraising” is the process of developing a clear, cohesive organizational identity and communications system that supports raising money and increasing visibility. Additionally, brandraising makes it easier to express your organization’s mission effectively and consistently. Durham claims brandraising is a holistic approach to communications that involves everyone within the organization—board, staff leadership, volunteers, program staff and donors. Brandraising is ultimately measured by how the mission is advanced.
As you read each author’s viewpoint on how a brand must uphold the mission, you may have also noticed these authors agree on the brand’s role as champion of visibility and revenue. Follow other high-performing nonprofits and their pursuit of brands created with a nonprofit lens rather than a corporate one; otherwise, your corporate imitation will be the sincerest form of fall-flat-tery.
Kris Rutledge is the Editor, a contributor and a content manager for CausePlanet.org, a thriving professional development website for nonprofit executives, featuring Page to Practice™ book summaries, articles and training. Her career has been dedicated to helping students and professionals reach their full potential, including years of service in English and literacy at the secondary and higher education levels. As an instructor, her primary areas of focus included reading, writing and literacy advocacy for students of all abilities. Rutledge has extensive experience in coaching and facilitation as well and has directed numerous staff development programs. Rutledge also enjoys freelance editing for nonprofit organizations in her spare time. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.