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Non-profits are filled with passionate people, dedicated to their organization’s cause. Because of this, they’re often tempted into believing they can grow their mission without many of the branding, marketing, and salesmanship they associate with corporate identities.
To some extent, this is true. They are often speaking to a sympathetic audience that has an emotional stake in the success of their organization. This also means their branding has to convey a message that sets them apart from their for-profit counterparts.
However, none of this means non-profits can—or should—forego the branding and marketing strategies that have proven to be successful for many businesses. After all, even the most generous donor must still choose whether to give to your non-profit or the one next door. And even the most selfless volunteer only has so many hours a day to devote to your cause.
The key for non-profits lies in establishing a strong brand while avoiding some of the visual cues that might cause them to be confused with a commercial enterprise. Here are some of the most important branding lessons and strategies non-profits must embrace to grow their organization.
Non-profits tend to have a stronger focus on cooperation than competition. They’re looking for ways to unite with similarly-minded non-profits so that they can mutually strengthen each other’s movements. This abundance mentality serves everyone well, and helps compatible organizations forge strong partnerships within their communities.
However, non-profits still need strong brands to differentiate themselves from other non-profits—even ones they frequently work with. Imagine your potential customer (or donor, or volunteer, or client) walks into a room full of you and representatives of other non-profits. They’re looking for a specific organization, but everyone’s wearing variations on the same T-shirt, and it’s difficult for them to emotionally connect or be drawn to any organization over another.
By contrast, imagine that same room filled with non-profit representatives, each with a distinct uniform showcasing their unique mission. Suddenly, that customer can find the organization that aligns with their needs, interests, or values.
Creating a visual identity means finding a balance between archetypes your audience will immediately recognize, and clichés that everyone else is likely to use. For instance, if you’re an environmental organization, you may be tempted to greenwash your branding. However, by doing so, you’ll be inadvertently imitating the branding of almost every other environmental non-profit out there. But, if you don’t use any green, your audience may not make the connection between your organization and the environmental cause you stand for.
One solution might be to choose a different color as the primary brand signifier (say, yellow or purple), and use green as a supplementary, backup color. You can then focus on delivering your environmental message through imagery and messaging.
Speaking of imagery and messaging, it’s important to remember that your brand means more than your logo. A coherent visual identity means your organization should settle on an image style, color palate, font family, and guidelines for how these element interact.
For instance, you may decide that you want to use only images of a certain style, and but no illustrations or animated graphics. You will have identified one family of fonts to use in headlines and headers, and another for body text. And you will show how your primary, secondary, and even tertiary color groups work with each other.
But your brand identity doesn’t stop with visuals; messaging is equally important. For instance, you may decide you want a tone in your copy that reads as “warm and academic,” or you could want something that’s “bold and edgy.” Both these tones have a place in non-profit branding, but they rarely belong side-by-side.
While we’re on the subject of messaging, this is a good time to mention your organization’s mission statement. Different brands handle this in various ways. Maybe you’ve identified a series of core values that you share with your volunteers, or perhaps you’ve written up a vision document that you’ve shared on the “about” section of your website. These are good things to have, but the problem is that they are often not well communicated to the right people.
First off, these statements need to be concise and powerfully-worded. They need to communicate very clear ideas to a broad group of people. A vision statement that could double as a thesis paper won’t ever be read by most of your audience.
However, a mission statement that is no more than a few words or sentences is something your non-profit can proudly display on your website. These slogans become rallying cries for employees, volunteers, and donors alike. And when done well, they can inspire your community to share your mission with others in their network.
Some non-profits struggle to justify the expense of a branding effort. However, the time organizations invest in creating a powerful brand usually pays off by rallying more volunteers and inspiring more donations.
At the end of the day, having a strong brand feels good. People like to know what you stand for, and they want to feel a part of it. Delivering that message across every aspect of your organization is what branding for non-profits is all about.