Why Brand? The Case for “Selling” Nonprofits

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Nonprofits often resist marketing. Marketing and sales smack of for-profit activities. In the best of cases, marketing dollars are viewed as an expenditure that reduces money for core mission projects. Worst case, branding, marketing and brand management are considered downright inappropriate.

But whether you know it or not, you are already selling your mission. The question is to whom, how, and how effectively?

In today’s highly competitive marketplace of ideas, your non-profit organization has very little emotional space in which to differentiate itself from the pack. When a nonprofit calls or sends us mail, or when a friend discusses volunteering, we look at this request not just against a backdrop of all our nonprofit investments but also against the other competing interests in our lives—our son’s Little League team, our work picnic, the birthday party we are hosting next weekend.

Here’s where a strong brand comes into play.

When a household already contributes to a church and a Little League Team and a PTA, they may feel that their nonprofit “basket” is full. To make an impression on this family, a nonprofit has to make a bold and memorable case for support. Having a strong brand already in place can help open the door or close the sale. For example, when my local volunteer fire department comes knocking at the door for their annual donation drive, I already understand their brand. They volunteer at our schools to explain fire safety to the children. The firehouse hosts kids’ parties and we’ve all taken the tour and tried to lift the 100-plus pounds of gear each firefighter wears in a fire. And a few years ago, they put out a fire on my street. They have a strong brand and they don’t need to tell me what they do. So the conversation is focused on what level of donation I am able and willing to give for the cause.

Not everyone can have as compelling and easy a case to understand as the local volunteer fire department. But if they don’t, they need to work hard to make it easy for people both inside and outside the organization to “get” what change they make in the world. Then, the trick is that once you’ve invested time and dollars making your brand known, you need to manage your brand so that there’s no slippage. Your “brand promise” has to be delivered as expected every time your organization or its name/logo is used. And that means Every Time, or you may have done lasting damage to your mission by reducing your ability to raise funds and attract talented staff and volunteers. (More on how good governance connects to your brand promise in a future posting).

Do you have a brand success story or brand crisis? Please share (names can be changed to protect organizational anonymity)!

Volunteers and Brand Consistency

The board and other supporters are the voice of your nonprofit brand in the community. Properly trained, these volunteers are your marketing secret weapon. But they need tools to become effective and prepared.
Here are four steps you can take to ensure your volunteers are a positive force for your brand.
1. Teach the Message.Board members, donors and programmatic or “field” volunteers should each have an “elevator pitch” for your organization, so named because it should only take about as long as a trip in an elevator. The pitch includes your mission and vision for the world, who you reach, why you care, and what change you are making in your community.
2.Connect the Message. It is also essential that the pitch include the volunteer’s own personal connection to the cause.They should include a personal story or anecdote of why they care so passionately about your organization and cause.
3. Practice the Message.Even experienced staff, volunteers and board members can get off message. That’s because they are so involved in the day-to-day work of the organization. Provide regular opportunities for everyone to practice their brand message and hone it in a friendly atmosphere. I’ve done trainings where board members practice giving the pitch to one another, and you’d be surprised how even the most experienced among them have a hard time getting the pitch down to something under 90 seconds. One pitfall that leads to too lengthy a description, is board members often try to describe “how” rather than “who.”
4. Live the Message. Once they’ve practiced their pitch, volunteers and board members should be encouraged to introduce the nonprofit to people they know, through family, work and play.These individuals may become future donors, volunteers or board leaders.
With these four steps, you are on your way to ensuring your volunteers extend your brand effectively into the communities you serve.

Nonprofits Boost Brand Impact with Social Media

In a recession, successful branding may seem to be a challenge for nonprofits, but there are also opportunities to improve brand awareness.

Brand defines an emotional connection between the entity providing a good or service and the people it wants to reach. Corporations measure the impact of their brand by market share and profits. For nonprofits, the product is change. Successful nonprofit branding communicates the change the organization makes in the world quickly and easily to a multi-layered audience: people in need, donors, volunteers, staff, public policymakers, and the general public.
In difficult financial times, some for-profits will be able to increase market share because advertising costs go down and/or their competitors go out of business.  Nonprofits can also take advantage of the new fiscal playing field to jockey for better position. One tool they can use is social networking sites. These allow nonprofits to magnify their brand power and increase reach for minimal overhead and out-of-pocket costs. For example, an increasing number of nonprofits are creating Facebook group and fan page sites to increase “market share.” Readers/viewers are not just potential donors, but also current and future volunteers–the lifeblood of nonprofit work. Organizations can use traditional online tools (web, email) to drive existing supporters to these pages.  At the same time, they can encourage their “fans” or “members” on the social networking site to spread the word about the mission they care about.  501(c)3’s can also register as a “cause” in order to raise funds. And they can take content originally created for web, print and video and re-purpose it to find new audiences on these sites. You-Tube offers another opportunity for building brand awareness. Video through this web portal can be a powerful tool to tell how a nonprofit is changing lives.
So while the economic times are creating fundraising challenges, nonprofits can and must take advantage of social networks to spread their unique brand of change.