Non-Profit Sector: To Brand or Not to Brand, is that the question?

  • Posted by: Arpita Bhawal

Recently, I was invited as a guest speaker at a non-profit convention hosted by Tech4Good fellows. Based on past experiences, I don’t expect non-marketing people to have an idea about branding or the importance of it in their field of work.

Some of the participants were aware of the branding trends for non-profits in large organisations, since branding as a concept is old within this sector. However, much to my surprise, there were a few who viewed it as not essential for smaller non-profits.

During the presentation, one participant raised a question which went something like this: What is the need for branding and evangelizing a non-profit?

His point was, if we are doing good, making a change, or creating an impact in society, why do we have to talk about it widely? Humility was more important than visibility.

My response was not text-book. I replied, “What if nobody knows about this good work that you are doing, and then one day, you get hit by a bus and there’s nobody to take your work forward? Don’t you want to magnify and sustain the good you’re doing, and help others also learn from it?”

At an academic and practical level, the questions brings us to the topic of this post. To brand or not to brand has been a big question for fledgling non-profits in this decade. Especially with the advent of game-changing technology.

– The reasons for such a debate could be many for smaller non-profits, such as:

– Lack of funds to scale up and spread wings

– Low on human resources

– Technologically challenged

– Lack of awareness of the changing human psyche

– Overwhelmed by the amount of spends by large, global, non-profits who soak up all the funds going around

– No deep insights into marketing strategy or business development

– Not even at the end of the Priority List

The fact remains that big organizations figured out much earlier in the game that they had to stay top-of-mind for their donors and also the general public, so it was critical to have a name and a logo, and be seen and heard regularly. Right from the 1950’s, non-profits have managed to reach large masses of people via print and radio (media) to ask for donations.

What is the general impression of a non-profit organization in the mind of the not-so-aware human, who has no time to make changes for the betterment of the world, and thus ends up contributing to non-profits occasionally?

By definition, the non-profit sector and its contributors, are seen as people who bring about change ‘for the better’. For that reason, Peter Drucker suggested we call the non-profit sector, “the human change sector.”

That was shot down by the other people who fought hard to keep the Ozone layer intact and decluttered oceans so that the fish could breathe, and the wild animals could stay protected in the forests. They said, ‘It’s not just about changing people!’ And they are right.

A quick research online reveals that most people don’t think of non-profit organizations as brands.

You won’t hear someone say, “Oh, I know them. They are an ocean brand called Sea Legacy.” You are more likely to hear, “Oh, that’s a non-profit organization called Sea Legacy. They clean up the seas and protect sea-life from getting wiped out.”

The reason for this is that people think of a non-profit brand more in terms of their impressions of it. They relate directly to what the organization does and the change it brings upon us. The general public who does not care about the sea would still have a positive impression of the organization and positive associations.

How is that possible? Research shows that people think of non-profits as vague organizations, but positive ones; poorly or low-resourced with well-meaning, un-businesslike people who are motivated by good intentions; people we can be trusted to do the right thing for most part, though perhaps rather inefficiently.

In the 90’s, the dominant brand paradigm of the non-profit sector was Communications.

Aggressive, hard-hitting and graphic communication was targeted at fund-raising; they were the mainstay of most campaigns conducted by large non-profits like Oxfam, Action-Aid, Greenpeace and other local charities like Famine Relief, War Victims, etc. The advertisements were published in newspapers, magazines and postcards that were sent to ‘lists’ (databases) via direct marketing.

Non-profit executives believed that increased visibility, favorable positioning in relation to competitors, and recognition among target audiences was the way to extract more wallet share from donors and keep them loyal to the causes.

In the 2000’s non-profits brands became highly visible everywhere.

The prominent ones were Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund and Cry. Even the small non-profits frequently experimented with putting their names on coffee cups, pens, and T-shirts, putting out posters in the local neighborhoods asking for contributions. Branding became a useful tool for:

– Managing the external perceptions of an organization

– Communicating on various media

– Fundraising for projects

– Marketing departments building general awareness

– Creating a greater social impact

– Developing a tighter organizational cohesion

In 2012, non-profit branding reached at an inflection point. Branding became relevant for the entire non-profit Executive Team.

– Branding was critical in building operational capacity, galvanizing support and maintaining focus on the social mission.

– It was critical when seeking partnerships, other funders, and looking to associate with people in the field.

– It helped to bring greater credibility and trust to a project quicker.

– Branding also acted as a catalyst for people to want to come to the table.

– It took 18 months of research by the fellows of Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Non-Profit Organizations and collaborators of the Rockefeller Foundation to launch a Conceptual framework called the Nonprofit Brand IDEA.

The Nonprofit Brand IDEA builds on four sources of pride or principles, as well as on the distinctive role that brand plays in the nonprofit sector.

– Brand integrity

– Brand democracy

– Brand ethics, and

– Brand affinity

By this time, the living ‘Brand’ had started to carve a niche for itself in the non-profit organization’s way of life.

It became more, like “a psychological construct held in the minds of all those aware of the branded product, person, organization, or movement.”

Brand management, as we know it, is the work of managing these psychological associations. In the for-profit world, marketing professionals talk of creating “a total brand experience.”

In the non-profit world, executives talk more about their “global identity” and the “what and why” of their organisations, because people who donate want to know.

The point in both cases is to take branding far beyond the logo.

For small non-profits, there is no other way to raise funds, than to harness the spending power and sensibilities of the current generations of people who are already aware of the changes needed to make the world better.

Technology and strategy have to come together in the play for non-profits to make their cause visible, scalable and sustainable. People running non-profits have to become aware of the merits of building a brand and using it to change the world.

Author: Arpita Bhawal

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