The New Rules of Nonprofit Branding
September 21, 2018
Todd Henderson

The New Rules of Nonprofit Branding

There are over 1,571,000 registered nonprofit organizations in the U.S. So far, so good. But that doesn’t mean there are 1,571,000 successful nonprofit organizations in the U.S. In fact, only about 2.3% account for 90% of total revenue in the category.

There’s clearly no shortage of enthusiasm for nonprofit work. But even with one charitable organization functioning for every 200 people or so in the U.S., not every nonprofit is living up to its potential. One constant challenge: branding. According to, one of the top issues for most of these 1.5 million nonprofits is achieving a goal of “general brand awareness.” For example, only about 1 in 4 nonprofit marketers feel that their content marketing is effective.

The concept of building a brand is often “taboo” for nonprofits, as they believe it’s a word that reeks of marketing and salesmanship. But nonprofit organizations don’t have to develop a “Swoosh” and a catchy tagline to improve the way a nonprofit organization brands itself. General brand awareness is a good thing for nonprofits and a great way to drive future donations.

There’s still some work to be done. The old rules of nonprofit branding aren’t working for millions of charitable organizations across the United States. Here are some new rules that might help:

Rule #1: Always be true to your mission.

“I would ask you to question who’s at the table and who’s not at the table and to think about those voices that aren’t represented when you’re making decisions.”

James Halliday, board chair at Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (source)

Every nonprofit organization has something going for it: it has a better brand story than most commercial operations. If major fast food brands can build effective and memorable campaigns based on the goal of selling more burgers and pizza, then your organization can find something engaging about its brand story by remembering its central mission.

As James Halliday recommends, remember why the nonprofit began in the first place. There are people out there you’re trying to help—people without a voice—and if you remember your central mission, you’ll rediscover what your brand can be. Think about the following:

  • Your nonprofit’s story. Do you have a story to tell? If so, how can people find out about it? Do you bother writing about it on your website? Have you put together a media or press kit that explains your nonprofit’s story, or are you waiting around for the journalists to find you? Your nonprofit has a story to tell, but it’s up to you to tell it.
  • Your content marketing strategy. With only a quarter of nonprofit marketers believing that their content marketing strategy is a success, it’s clear that there’s room for improvement. As your nonprofit’s story continues to unfold, are you able to demonstrate that ongoing story through blog updates? Twitter posts? Videos? If not, it may be time to upgrade your content marketing strategy.

Rule #2: It’s okay to market yourself like a for-profit.

Statistics show that about 71% of charitable giving in the U.S. comes from individuals. In essence, many nonprofits and charitable organizations have “customers” to whom they need to market. The problem is that too many charities and nonprofits aren’t comfortable using conventional marketing tactics.

The good news is that this is an easy flaw to remedy. If your nonprofit isn’t already involved with marketing tools and strategies (like the following), then it can easily adopt them:

  • Direct mail. Direct mail still works—and there’s also a degree of trust that comes with an effective direct mail campaign. In fact, 56% of customers find print marketing to be the most trustworthy. Your brand doesn’t have to look like the local grocery ads, either; print marketing is a large and diverse field that can include a number of tools and strategies—many of which suit nonprofit work to a T.
  • Many people associate email marketing with online retailers and holiday discounts. But as it turns out, nonprofit organizations are especially suited to email marketing. Among the 18 different industries studied, nonprofit organizations performed among the top five when it came to their open rate—some 34%. People like to open emails from organizations they trust, which means that nonprofits outperform a number of commercial industries when it comes to the inbox.
  • Social media and content marketing. If your nonprofit focuses on the older generations—Generations X and the Baby Boomers—don’t give up on social media and content marketing just yet. Platforms like Facebook are becoming increasingly boomer-friendly, making it possible for you to market your video and blog content on your social media pages.

Rule #3: Be yourself.

With over 1.5 million registered nonprofit organizations in the U.S., it’s clear that while you might not always have competition, you will have a need to differentiate your nonprofit from the rest. A brand is only successful if it can cut its way through the noise to make an impression on people who aren’t aware of that brand.

There are several ways to differentiate yourself. Your goals, your story, your location, your intended audience—put them all together and you’ll likely find that you’re one of the few nonprofits in your area that does what you do.

The next question is simple: how do you get people to sit up and take notice?

One way is to focus on your key strategies. What is it about what you do that makes you so different? Consider the organization APOPO. Dedicating to fighting landmines and tuberculosis, APOPO might sound like many other nonprofits you’ve already heard of. But they have a twist: they train rats to help detect both issues.

APOPO doesn’t hide this fact. On the contrary, even their logo includes the outlined image of a rat. Their website highlights the rats that perform this detection work, including a whole section on the “HeroRATS,” as well as their training, research, and frequently asked questions. Yes, APOPO has a unique story built right into their brand—but they also make full use of it by highlighting it when they have a chance.

Rule #4: Make it personal.

Seth Godin once defined a “brand” as:

“…the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.

A brand used to be something else. It used to be a logo or a design or a wrapper. Today, that’s a shadow of the brand, something that might mark the brand’s existence.”

That’s why one of the “new” rules of branding your nonprofit is to get away from the slogan-and-logo thinking. Think about a personal touch that makes your brand more engaging.

Because nonprofit organizations have a “personal” feeling built in, it’s important to highlight the most personal aspects of what your brand is all about. That might include:

  • Testimonials and personal stories. Are there people who have been touched by your nonprofit? How have their lives improved? Think of these as customer testimonials, but on a more human level. These are the stories that help you demonstrate to your visitors that you’re more than just an organization on paper. Make it a constant part of your content strategy to find, explore, and relate these stories to your audience.
  • Include more about your founders. The founders of your nonprofit—and that may be you—started that nonprofit because of a need. There’s an important message there. People don’t only want to get a sense of the nonprofit; they also want to get a sense of the people behind it. Fortify your “About Us” page with plenty of information about the people making the nonprofit tick, and don’t forget to include similar stories in your press kit.

Rule #5: Remember that we’re all emotional creatures.

One of the chief challenges of most nonprofits is getting people to act. It’s great if you have a clear-cut brand, and if you have an expansive website that draws people in. But without engaging the emotions of your core audience, you won’t get people to act.

Emotion comes from a root word of motion: the act of moving. That’s why we say things “moved” us, or that a video we watched was “moving.” Touching people on an emotional level is at the core of what makes your nonprofit brand stand out from the crowd—the ability to draw people in and get them to act.

To do so, make sure that your content marketing focuses on key touchpoints that engage people on a human level. Demonstrate the problem you’re trying to solve. Show that there are people out there like your nonprofit interested in solving it.

It’s also important to involve the social aspect of your nonprofit. “Social proof” is a powerful concept from sales and persuasion that states, simply, that if we see other people doing something, we feel more drawn to it. You can be just as persuasive when it comes to your nonprofit.

Before you engage with your new rules of nonprofit branding, sit down to ask yourself some key questions:

  • What is it that we want to motivate people to do? This question gets to the heart of your objectives as an organization. Imagine that you had control over this process. If you knew what you wanted people to do as a response to encountering your brand, what would that be?
  • How do we communicate this message? Remember the old advice of “showing” and not “telling.” There are ways to communicate a message to your audience that don’t require writing them out. Think of the images, videos, and testimonials that can reshape the way people perceive your brand.

Rule #6: Share it!

You might remember a certain craze that raised over $200 million for ALS-related organizations in 2014.

The “ice bucket challenge” as a true viral hit because it had two powerful factors built in: it was fun to watch online, and it required that everyone who took part in it shared it with friends. The “Challenge” to others quickly swept through the nation and touched everyone from politicians to celebrities.

Make sure that your nonprofit is “shareable” too. You don’t have to dump cold water on your head to do it—but you do have to make sure that your brand has these same two factors built into the way it promotes itself. Make sure that not only is your brand fun to watch online, but that it’s easy to share on social media, email, and via text.

Today’s Nonprofit Branding Strategies

Brands today are far more than a slogan. They’re far more than the way people see you. Your nonprofit’s brand permeates everything you do—which is why it’s so important to address these fundamental questions as you formulate your marketing strategy. Keep to the new rules, and you’ll find your nonprofit can succeed in the new media age.