3 min read

You want your donors and prospective donors to know what your organization really is—and to remember it. That’s what branding is for.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “branding?” You might picture a hefty price tag, an all-hands conference, or some hive of creatives holed up in their office and cutting copy a lá Mad Men, with a glass of bourbon and their heels up on the desk.

Another headline? Comin’ right up! 

You might think of a marketing team huddled around the conference table and exhausting themselves over a mission statement, a logo, a bit of boilerplate.

Or, and if you’ve had a poor experience with any of the above, you might think the quick and easy solution is copying someone else. Organizations—even nonprofits—do it all the time. They find a brand they like and plagiarize its look, font, and attitude. They bandwagon on the latest trends, share some zany TikTok videos and then ride that wave hoping to engage a wider, younger audience.

But while none of those examples come close to the real thing, the consequences of not branding at all are real enough. In a world filled with digital marketing, free content, and constant advertising, “brandless” nonprofits who don’t make some effort to present themselves and their mission in a winsome way get lost in the noise.

For organizations that rely on donors and advocates instead of customers—and who make improving lives or strengthening communities their focus—going off the radar and losing attention can spell disaster.

While you’ve probably heard this one before, it’s too apt not to mention: those who don’t get up and run with the herd risk getting trampled

So Branding’s Necessary, but How is it Ethical?

Great question—and the short answer is that the ethics of branding lies in using truth and transparency to present your organization honestly.

Done correctly, branding is an endeavor that forces an organization to know itself, define its purpose, own its history, pin down true qualities, and frame it all in an overarching story that everyone from a volunteer to the executive director (and certainly donors), can understand.

Since branding requires flexing ethical muscles—transparency, truthfulness, communication, and holistic honesty, to name a few—putting in the hard work of discovering and sharpening an authentic brand identity is among the most considerate and thoughtful steps a nonprofit can take to serving others.

In the end, a nonprofit that presents itself fully and truthfully to donors in a way that resonates stands a greater chance of rallying long-term support for its mission.

On the other hand, a cheap or negligent approach to branding can range from cringy to outright unethical . . . and for those companies that don’t put in the effort, the results speak for themselves. Those who take shortcuts—where they should be building a name, a look, a culture, and a reputation that resonates—fall noticeably short.

Those who build their brand on superficial trends flame out when the winds change. Those who copycat brands do not inspire trust. Those who lean on exhausted teams to piece it together come up with a weak, inauthentic brand.

In the end, more people respond to truth, transparency, and confident authenticity than anything else.

Starting the Journey

Whether you’re revitalizing parks and landmarks or teaching underserved youth how to code in a computer lab, everything the world sees should reflect the true, authentic nature of your nonprofit and its mission.

Even if you have a killer logo that touches on classic themes, a sizzlin’ social media account, or a donor list longer than the phone book, there’s no substitute for the real thing. Authentic, nitty-gritty branding that takes a truthful, inside-out approach builds brands that resonate with people and earn their respect. Ultimately—if they want to be memorable and impactful—nonprofits can’t afford to neglect the hard, ethical work of showing their authentic selves to everyone else.

For more of my thoughts on how nonprofits can build their brand without taking shortcuts or breaking the bank paying for a high-flying ad agency, check out my step-by-step guide to the branding process in my book You are Remarkable.

If your work is honest, ethical, and authentic, then your branding should be as well . . . and when it is, your supporters will notice that something resonates.

And don’t forget—you (and your organization) are remarkable.

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