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 IronPaper.com, 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:
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:
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:
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:
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.