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3 min read

Brand management for nonprofits: An oxymoron?



Much about the way we work with nonprofits and mission-driven organizations has changed in the more than two decades I have been leading this firm.

An allergy to the "M" word

In the beginning, marketing, the “M” word, held a nasty connotation among most of our nonprofit clients and seemed downright unspeakable to the rest. Internally, we talked about the "allergy" our nonprofit clients had to anything marketing related. To “market” the institution meant selling out, nothing less. And the concept of branding? Forget about it. Not even on the radar.

Marketing becomes valued for the mission-driven organization

Attitudes about the “M” word have changed considerably in 20+ years. During that time, together with our colleagues and competitors, we have worked hard to bring the best of what we learned from our for-profit clients to bear on the important work that we do for nonprofits. And, just as marketing is now a core component of every major mission-driven organization, branding is now the buzzword among many of them. Today, sophisticated public good organizations understand that they must differentiate and position themselves in the marketplace and that they must do so by using the same rigor and diligence exemplified by their market-driven counterparts.

The rise of branding for nonprofits

A few years ago, I gave a presentation about branding for a large group of nonprofits in Boston. That was my first time to discover personally just how much attitudes about the “M” and “B” words had changed. In fact, over 400 people attended my presentation … and the organizers had to run video to an adjacent conference rooms to accommodate the overflow. To be clear, it was certainly not the charisma of the speaker that accounted for this unexpectedly high turnout. Rather, it was the panic that seemed palpable among the attendees…those harried souls responsible for governing mission-driven organizations…as they scrambled, somewhat desperately, to carve out a distinct institutional identity and gain attention in an increasingly noisy, competitive world.

Today, the increased financial strain caused by an inequitable and lackluster economy only increases the need for organizations to raise awareness and create engagement with their audiences.

Ongoing brand management still lags

And, just as it was initially important for nonprofits to embrace the concepts of marketing and branding, I believe it is now critical for those same organizations to develop their thinking regarding another hugely important concept…ongoing brand management.

Look at Tide, the flagship laundry detergent brand in the collection of brands maintained by the venerable consumer goods product behemoth Proctor & Gamble. Ongoing brand management for Tide laundry detergent yields a widely accepted premium price of half again what its competitors can command.


Or look at a company like Apple. Its brand is its most valuable asset and ranks as the most valuable brand in the world. As such, it is protected, nurtured, invested in, and maintained with absolute dedication. The reason is quite clear. What Andrew W. Savitz calls the “triple bottom line,” (economic, social, and environmental success), may very well become the new standard for measuring a company’s health. But it bears noting that one of those three attributes is still about old-fashioned return on investment...ROI. For Apple, no asset returns on its investment more profitably than the organization’s brand.

The ROI of ongoing brand management for nonprofits

I would argue that this is equally true for nonprofits, though ROI is often viewed differently among them. As Jim Collins points out in Good to Great and the Social Sectors, for nonprofits, the notion of ROI is expanded to include the combined drivers behind each organization’s resource engine…time, money, human energy, passion, and, yes, brand. In this brave new world, maintaining the brand is essential to sustaining the mission.

If branding is developed holistically and thoughtfully, if it resonates from the inside out and from the outside in, then it can be the ultimate means for sustaining the institutional vision and mission. (The fact that some organizations still do not undertake a deep and rigorous branding process is a topic for another blog post…working title? It is STILL not about the logo, folks!)

We’ve witnessed a number of leading nonprofit organizations beg, borrow, and steal the funding to pay for the initial branding development. But where is the operational line item allocated for ongoing brand management? Most museums and foundations, for instance, maintain an allocation for ongoing PR consultation, but that’s about it. PR is an essential discipline but not at all structured to address brand management. Without dedicated resources both financial and intellectual, these organizations will invariably lose brand equity.

A successful company like Apple would consider it the ultimate business folly to take their eye off of, and their investment dollars away from, their most valuable and valued asset…the brand.

Our nonprofit organizations can certainly afford no less--for their sake and for the sake of the audiences who engage with and often rely on them. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 20 years for nonprofits to recognize that there is no more dividing line. Mission = Brand.


Mission-Driven Marketing, Focus, and Fear

Reluctant Marketer: Why the triple bottom-line norm?

The Tricky Business of Nonprofit Brands (Harvard Business School)

2011 Edelman Trust Barometer



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