Nonprofit Branding: The Big IDEA

When it comes to branding, it’s time to talk about a big new IDEA.

We know what you’re thinking—another forced acronym to tell you something you already know about branding. You’re probably a little leery of the notion of nonprofit branding to begin with. Sounds corporate, right? Wrong! A good brand can be the key to your nonprofit’s success.  So, take a deep breath, relax, and get ready for some jargon.

In “The Brand IDEA,” Nathalie Laidler-Kylander and Julia Shepard Stenzel looked at 70 nonprofits to see what the most successful organizations are doing right with their brands. The pair identified three factors that can make or break a nonprofit’s brand: Integrity, DEmocracy, and Affinity.


We’re starting simple with this one. Laidler-Kylander and Stenzel define integrity as simply following through with your promises. If you talk a big game, but you can’t back it up, you’ll lose your donors’ trust (and dollars). So, keep your goals impressive, but also achievable.


This one’s a bit more of a culture change. Democracy, according to Laidler-Kylander and Stenzel is all about letting go of your brand. Thanks to social media, your brand is no-longer controlled by the marketing team. The sooner you accept that anyone who talks about your organization online–from your executive director to the day volunteer–creates and manages your brand, the better.

But just because everyone is a critic doesn’t mean that every critique is critical. So, make sure everyone involved has something good to say about your group, (which is probably a good idea anyway), and then encourage them to talk. This allows you to harness all of those free reviews for your benefit.

Laidler-Kylander and Stenzel cite Special Olympics as an example of brand democracy. The organization reached out for input from its benefactors and participants to come up with the killer catchphrase “revealing the champion in all of us.” According to Special Olympics, the input helped realign their brand and got everyone on the same page.


“Brand Affinity,” Laidler-Kylander and Stenzel wrote, “is an approach to brand management whose focus is on shared social impact, rather than on individual organizational goals.” To put this simply, keep in mind that your donors probably don’t care who gets the job done as much as how well it’s done. If your organization is one of several in your area specializing in the same field, view it as an asset. You’re all after the same goal, so don’t view similar nonprofits as competitors, but collaborators. Don’t be afraid to reach out and work with nonprofits with whom you share an objective. By working together, instead of separately, you’ll get more done and your donors will appreciate that you’re putting their dollars to good use.

It’s with more than a little local pride that we mention that Omaha Community Foundation was named by Laidler-Kylander as a capital collaborator in a recent Forbes article. According to the author, the organization’s brand affinity–through collaborating with area nonprofits, donors, and beneficiaries led to a 221 percent increase in new gifts.

To recap:

1. Dream big, but follow through. Make sure that your organization can keep its promises to keep its integrity.

2. Let it go. Improve your brand’s democracy by accepting that you can’t control everything about your brand and listen to the people your organization affects.

3. Work together. Don’t be afraid to reach out to organizations in your area that share your goals, boost your affinity to achieve something bigger than any of you could have on your own.

  • Paul Guba

    I disagree. If you leave your branding up to everyone the result will be the lowest common denominator essentially your brand will be talking to itself while wearing pajamas at Walmart. Create media that clearly communicates your message. Budget for professionals to do this when you can afford it. Understand that investing in your brand is an investment in communicating what you do and the better you look the more likely your nonprofit will attract donors and volunteers.

    • Paul—I think that instead of leaving your branding up to everybody, it means knowing to let go after you do prep work that you’re talking about (such as clearly communicating your message with media). We can’t control every aspect of our brand, and through education of those materials you were talking about having in place, you can feel confident in a democracy environment where your advocates are talking out in the world. Thank you for your comment!

      • Paul Guba

        That is so far from reality its laughable. In reality a nonprofit might have a marketing team, but they won’t have a budget to create media. Why pay for something when I can create it on my iPhone for free or better yet someone else does it for me. Is it Democracy or the Lowest Common Denominator, I will call it what it is mediocrity. What you end up with is marketing that looks like a slide show of vacation pictures barely worthy of a Facebook posting. Marketing has no choice but to use it because some mentions that by not paying for something better we now have more money for our mission. A decision is made to use it because its free and that becomes your image. The only control you have is choose the least worst options that might fit an image you want to project. If your not consistently creating good media to represent your nonprofit then something else will take its place. I speak from experience in dealing with some of the largest nonprofits in the world.

        • Alex_Paxton

          ” If your not consistently creating…” WRONG! It should read “If you’re.” It is the contraction for “you are.” Guess you missed that day in school. 😀

          • Paul Guba

            Good point Alex. Obsessive compulsive disorder is a horrible disability.