Solid branding is just as critical for nonprofits as it is in the corporate world.  A brand that is not aligned with organizational goals, principles, and donor investments, is in serious trouble. And because a re-brand can take time and dollars away from key mission, it scares people .  Nonprofits can also find re-branding daunting because it can be a deeply emotional process for donors, long-time volunteers and staff.  Here are some reasons to do a re-brand and ways to make it a productive, even exciting process.

Why Re-Brand?

1.  Your name/logo/tagline no longer reflect your true mission.

2.  No one knows what your mission is when they hear your name.

3.  You are expanding your mission and want to ensure all your external materials reflect this.

4.  You have gone from being a collection of local or regional organizations to being a national one and need a new, unified identity.

Reasons NOT to Re-Brand a Nonprofit

1. You have multiple and divergent missions that not everyone can agree on (not a re-brand issue, but a good reason to embark on a strategic planning process).

2. You’ve really messed something up (you need crisis PR and brand attention, but not necessarily a re-brand).

3. Your logo style and color is dated (this may be true, but may not be reason enough to give up the brand capital associated with it).

Okay, let’s assume you’ve gone through all the due diligence and decided it’s really time for a change. What’s involved?

A Strategic Plan for Your Brand

Branding is always an act of imagination. The question to ask if you want to re-brand is “will this help propel our mission to where we envision ourselves 10-15 years from now?”  Or, in the lingo of corporate brands, “does it help us deliver on our brand promise?”  And just as you have a multi-year road map for your organizational work, you need a strategy for your re-brand.   Here are three things to focus on in a re-brand and questions for your board and staff to consider.

1. Programs and Services.  Are they consistent with our mission/vision?

2.  Governance Structure.  Do our bylaws, board governance, and staff-board  and staff-volunteer relationships effectively support our programs and services? Do we offer a consistency of vision and goal-setting across all parts of the organization?

3.  External Signifiers. Do our name/logo/tag line/communications channels help people understand our mission, vision and value to our community?

So many organizations start a re-branding with the externals and then fail at the re-brand because the internals are still not quite in sync.

Brand Identity Touchstones

Another element to success is checking in with key constituencies.  I’m not recommending crowd-sourcing your new logo. But when considering changing any key aspect of your branding—colors, logo and/or tag line—consider these useful perspectives:

1.        Current customers/clients/donors.  Organizations that already have deep roots into social networks can use them for feedback. But it’s also good to use old-fashioned focus groups, with a trained professional to run them. However realize that all of these sources are subjective and subject to change from a variety of external pressures you can’t necessarily control.

2.       Prospective customers/clients/donors.  This one is always a bit harder to pinpoint, but a firm specializing in both quantitative and qualitative survey data can help you hone in on key sub-markets and assess the resonance of your new branding with them.

3.       Vendors.  I know, on first blush this seems odd. But as one of the people who often has to deal with people’s new logos (for multimedia/video production), I’m often struck by how they don’t work across multiple mediums.  Check in with your essential communications vendors–from printers to video producers to webmasters–and be sure that you are considering the fonts and colors that work best in their media.

As you craft your new brand vision, always come back to mission. Consider how your donors, volunteers, policymakers and the public will remain confident that you will provide the value they expect and deserve.

Doctors explaining Gabrielle Giffords’ seemingly amazing transition on the path to recovery after her gunshot wound have credited “neuroplasticity,” or the ability of the brain to compensate for damage by at least partly rewiring itself and assigning new tasks to undamaged regions. It made me think about many organizations I know–including my own business–that were forced to “rewire” when the economic downturn hit. Now we’re on the road to recovery, how much of this flexibility can and should we retain?

People: During the downturn, many of my clients became super-multi-taskers (they were already multi-tasking plenty).  When their staff and colleagues were “downsized,” they suddenly found themselves doing additional jobs–sometimes ones they had given up years before.  They had to re-learn old skills and acquire new ones. They had to plug into the hierarchy in new ways. I did the same when I became a solo practitioner, after years of running a multi-person studio.  Skills I’d like to keep: teaming with clients and vendors, avoiding bureaucracy, and using technology to work efficiently. Skills I’d like to lose: making my own coffee (so far, successfully outsourced to my husband and 12-year-old!)

Leadership: The downturn seemed to bring more collaborative leadership styles, perhaps due to a de-layering of the intervening bureaucracy.  Many nonprofits became more tuned in to the skills of their boards, and tried to tap them more effectively. Leaders had to become more strategic about financial management and fundraising, and make up for lost staff talents.  Skill to keep: Board and Leadership engagement with the mission and strategy. Skill to lose: Board involvement in day-to-day decisions.

Money: Several organizations I work with lost revenue sources, but through quick adaptation and administrative and board engagement were able to develop new ones.  In my business model I did the same–adding more workshops and brand consulting to a mix that had included mainly video and multi-media production.  Skills to keep: Making the money last longer. Skills to lose: Under-charging, and penny-pinching that means the end product suffers and the brand takes a hit.

Time: As a corollary to shrinking staffs and less money, we all came to stretch how much time we spent at work.  We are, after all, the “most productive” country in the world.  Or so we think. Skill to keep: Efficiency.  Skill to lose: So much multi-tasking that we aren’t thoughtful and creative.

What skill did you gain during the downturn and do you want to keep it or lose it?

Last week Claire Gaudiani wrote in the San Francisco Examiner about organizations such as the Greenlining Institute and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, who charge that today’s private foundations do not sufficiently meet the needs of society’s poorest and most marginalized populations. In other words, they think private foundations have a poor brand–often for good reason–and it needs fixing. Greenlining and NCRP have been advocating both for set percentages of funding (as much as 50%) for such groups, and also that foundations report the ethnic and racial composition of their boards and staffs.  In many ways, these actions could serve to increase the responsiveness of the foundation sector to people in need. In other ways, these goals could be counterproductive.

First, let’s take the diversity goal. When I work with nonprofit boards, particularly in the area of governance, I am always pushing for diversity. But what I often find is not so much a lack of racial and ethnic diversity as a lack of economic and age diversity.  Age, what’s that got to do with it, you say? Well, a lot.  When I poll boards before working with them, I typically find the bulk of members are within a ten-year age range.  While some boards skew older and some younger, in most cases they are missing members in their 20’s and 30’s and those in their 70’s and 80’s.  From the younger group they could gain a better understanding of the power of social media–with tools like social networks, web video, podcasts, and mobile technologies–to reach donors and service-users alike. (For example, mobile phone use is very high in so-called under-served populations.)  In the older group, they would find experience running organizations, managing investments, and excellent community connections.

In terms of the charge that private foundations should provide more grants to marginalized populations, one of the key stumbling blocks to this funding may be ensuring the readiness of grantees to actually manage the grant, with its reporting, communications, and financial responsibilities. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) provides a good model in the way it provides capacity-building grants to nonprofit re-granting organizations that act as bridges, helping communities and very small nonprofits learn to manage the funding process, build community-based solutions and improve their capacity, so that in the future AID can make them direct grants.  This is a model followed by many private foundations as well, and so the target measurements should take this into account.

There’s no question private foundations can improve their work, and their image. The question is how to do it in a way that benefits society, and builds more capacity within the donor organizations, too.

The Tea Party has been slinging arrows at “the government,” a seemingly monolithic entity they accuse of being ineffective at best and downright evil at worst. For those of us who live in the Washington, D.C. region, and know real live people who labor each day in all three branches, it’s hard to muster this outrage and vision of incompetence and ill intent. We know people toiling to preserve our civil rights at the Justice Department.  And those working to preserve the quality of our farming soil at the Department of Agriculture. We know people researching case law at the Supreme Court and getting food and battle supplies to our soldiers overseas at the Defense Logistics Agency. And don’t forget those working round the clock to save the Gulf Coast from annihilation at The White House and a range of federal and local environmental agencies.

So why the poor brand for “the government”?

Partly responsible is a lack of civic education in our schools.  Do our children have much of a handle on how our three branches of government work? (Do their parents?!) Do they know what citizen activism really means or looks like, other than complaining? Or have we focused them so much on math and science scores that civics gets left behind?

Recent crises have offered a “teachable moment” for us all with a first-hand look at how government, while never perfect, serves to promote the common good. The Coast Guard rushed in to help when private industry–BP and its subcontractors–were not able to manage the oil spill situation.  Federal and local law enforcement worked together over a 52-hour period to catch a would-be terrorist bomber in New York. Our government even comes to the rescue when other governments fail. Case in point Haiti.

So why is our government brand such a failure?

Likely because it is so wide-ranging in focus and daily actions.  And ironically, because government funds tend to go more towards the doing and less towards the talking points.   Add to that the problem that when it is under-funded in key activities (FDA oversight of over-the-counter medication industry) because more funding goes to other government activities (war, Social Security), when failures occur–i.e. recent Tylenol recall–government is often blamed.  Kind of a no-win situation.

The good news is that government–at federal and local levels–is beginning to harness 21st century tools of communication both to conduct its work and to communicate better about it. The Obama administration has required more transparency in federal agencies, including posting of reports and information on public websites and communicating about initiatives through social media.  Multiple federal agencies are harnessing digital media for training capabilities, decreasing costs and improving reach.

It’s a start. But if government really wants to improve its brand, then it probably needs to dedicate more funding to civic education initiatives  along with a corollary of more pro-active communications efforts from every agency. Which would of course take funding away from real government action.

The end of this brand story is, well, up to us. The “we” in We the People. Here ends the rant!

To much fanfare and hand-wringing, Virginia’s governor has just declared April to be Confederate History Month. One of the great battles of our Civil War has been on my mind, since I just returned from a family trip to Gettysburg. We’d been several times before, but this time we had a private guide who truly brought the scale and devastation of those terrible three days to life. We walked the battle lines of the Wheat field and saw where men fell in lines at the Peach Orchard.  We imagined the cannon firing into the town, scattering frightened civilians.  We climbed Little Round Top and peered over the edge, imagining a sea of Confederate soldiers charging. And we saw the deadly conclusion in Pickett’s Charge.  And as we moved back and forth from Confederate to Union perspectives, I was reminded of my own divided history:   A Yankee through and through, having been raised in New York and Maryland, I have plenty of Confederates in the family, with ancestors who fought and died at Antietum, and southern  relatives–including a Confederate historian–who remain skeptical about northern ways.

Hidden or Banished Differences May Slow  Success

There are many legacies of our divided history, but one is clear: Americans remain separated politically, socially, economically and even spiritually. So why should my readers care? Because we often hide our differences, or operate in communities of the like-minded, thus subverting the real benefits of diverse perspectives and ideas.

For example, how many boards do you serve on where the leadership is predominantly of one political persuasion? What would happen if these leaders didn’t all support the same candidates and agree on the same issues (even if your organization isn’t political in nature)? And what about in business–do the leaders in your company represent diverse views and personal histories? Do they come from varied economic backgrounds? Or did they all attend the same schools and join the same country clubs?  Does your organization push for cross-cultural literacy and encourage leadership development among people of varied cultural backgrounds?  Do you promote gender parity initiatives that mentor and support women through childbearing years, when many fall off the leadership ladder?

Find Your Perspective Gap

Many times firms and organizations feel they are doing plenty to promote diversity, but if they asked for feedback from the people most affected, they might learn a different truth. For instance, according to a recent Bain & Company study, when it comes to gender disparity in leadership, men and women view the workplace very differently. Men think women are treated equally, whereas women don’t see it that way. Why the gap? I’ll let you read the report to see what the Bain folks think, but I have witnessed the “perspective gap” taking many solid nonprofits and businesses off their path of success.

What do I mean by “perspective gap”? I mean asking your staff or board members how they feel about having a different opinion or background from the rest of the group.  Are they encouraged to have a different perspective? Or is it less complicated to remain silent? In his recent book about the amazing technological success of Israel, Startup Nation, Dan Senor attributes Israel’s success, among other reasons, to a culture of people being willing to challenge their superiors, and those superiors being willing to listen.  He gives examples of how this has promoted a faster route to innovation and change.

OK, Amy, where is this going and what does it have to do with Confederate History Month?

Invite Opposition

Here goes. My suggestion is to create your own version of a controversial celebratory month within your company or nonprofit organization.  Let’s call it Contrary Opinion Month.  Invite everyone to make a suggestion that appears to be contrary to company tradition, policy or social custom. If you are a law firm, encourage your newest young associates to speak up at your next committee meeting! If you are a nonprofit, don’t let a unanimous vote obscure hidden dissent in the ranks–bring it on and into the light! If you are a big business, find out what that guy in the mailroom thinks about your new [fill in the blank] policy!

I’m truly curious to hear what happens, so if you have a good story, please email me at amy[at]amydelouise[dot]com.

I just attended the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), where I was speaking about how to engage stakeholders with a new approach to presenting an organization’s financials.  Again and again, I learned in other sessions about innovative models for education—both models to sustain institutions and also to engage young minds for 21st century challenges.

It got me thinking about my own business model and that of my clients. How innovative is our model? Is change built into our decision-making mechanisms, or is it hard to achieve?  Why?

All NAIS attendees received Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Switch” (they are the best-selling authors of “Made to Stick”), which discusses how to make lasting changes in our companies, our communities and our lives.  One of the core messages of the book is that change is hard not because people are lazy or uncreative, but because the self-supervision required for repeated behavior change is exhausting.  It’s like driving on a new route to work.  On the old route, you can be on “automatic” and not even remember certain miles of your trip. On a new route, you will need to constantly check road signs and cues to be sure you are going the right way.  That’s really tiring.  The Heaths discuss how “scripting” the critical moves for the people within an organization (not all the moves, just the key ones) can reduce this exhaustion and has helped many companies  successfully implement lasting change.

To create a reliable path for change, “Switch” looks at how to adjust the environment in which change needs to happen and build habits that lead to change, all through what they call “the humble checklist.” Atul Gawande has made waves—even on  The Daily Show—with his simple safe surgery checklist that has radically changed patient outcomes in hospitals around the world.  Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto shows how something as simple as a checklist empowers us—if we can overcome our belief that we already know the right way to do something–to put our knowledge to use more effectively, communicate with our team at the most critical points in a process, and get things done…right.

Another book that looks at innovation from the standpoint of a national case study is Dan Senor’s “Startup Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.” Senor looks at why Israel, a nation of 7 million people the size of New Jersey, has more startups than any other country outside the US, and more companies on the NASDAQ than India or China.  He looks at factors such as a history of overcoming obstacles, a culture of questioning group-think, a government policy of rapid integration of immigrants into society and education, and a willingness to integrate employees with military service (which virtually everyone in Israel has)  into the private sector.

Ultimately it is the willingness to dare, to take risks and try something new, which helps organizations—and students, and nations—succeed at change.  How can you create a culture that values risk-taking, and provides a path for success for the innovators in your organization?

Sea Rocks at Dawn-s.cI recently trailed one of my children on school visiting day and was struck by the relevance of the English lesson. The students were discussing difficult choices, using as their texts the novel “Tuck Everlasting” and Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Less Traveled.”  The lesson reminded me of why I love novels (aside from the fact that I was an English major), and why I think leaders should read them.

In an article earlier this year about CEO character traits, the New York Times’ Peter Brooks postulates that reading novels could offer these leaders “greater psychological insight, a feel for human relationships, a greater sensitivity toward their own emotional chords.”  He’s on to something. I would add to his list the following:

  1. Perspective on Difficult Choices. As in life, the characters in novels rarely get black and white choices.  Tom Sawyer has to confront racial injustice as he considers his friendship with Huck. Edith Wharton’s Lily Barth in House of  Mirth tries to find a way to avoid the socially and financially correct marriage that society in her time demands. James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom struggles with the existential crises of the individual living in modern collective society in Ulysses. The list goes on.  By reading these novels we gain insight into our own dilemmas.
  2. A View of Character.  “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” by Joyce Carol Oates was one of my favorite–yet difficult–reads this year. The way this brilliant novelist draws us into the protagonist’s shocking childhood helps a reader understand what can lie behind broken familial relationships and what it takes to be a survivor.
  3. A View Into Other Cultures. Another favorite novel of mine is “The Piano Tuner,” a stunning first novel which provides a view into the unequal relationships within the British Colonial empire, and specifically in Myanmar, at the end of the 19th century.  While set in a distant time and culture, some of the scenes are achingly heartbreaking, and can give us some context for the continuing struggles of the Burmese people.
  4. An Ability to Change One’s Mind. I recently read “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by literary power-house John Fowles, and had the pleasure to discuss it in a book club led by my wonderful former high school English teacher.  Over the course of reading the novel, I completely changed my mind about the “woman” of the title, Sarah.  Through Sarah, Fowles slowly brought me to a new perspective on all the characters in the book, as well as a view of modern relationships.  Being able to change one’s mind is something we are less and less able to do in our society, as we seem to be forced into clearly defined groups whose minds have been made up for us (by religious affiliation, by gender, by political party, neighborhood, school choices for our children, etc.).  Being able to think about perspective is the great gift of the novel.

So for all these reasons, I highly recommend that leaders read fiction, and specifically the novel. Try handing out a novel to your board and staff at your next meeting and then schedule a discussion of one or two of the topics above at a subsequent gathering.  It might just give you a new way to think about problems, people, and choices.

Do you have a great novel to recommend?

The Chronicle of Philanthropy just reported in its June 4th issue that the value of endowments held by all 229 organizations in its survey declined by a combined $29.1 billion from 2007 to 2008. This will come as no surprise to development directors.  Many organizations don’t want to talk much about the big drops they’ve seen in their endowments, other than to say they are “similar to what the rest of the market has seen.”

My view is that putting our heads in the sand about our financials is a failed approach, and one that will hinder future fundraising.

Why? Because donors understand that market failures are not the failure of the organization. But if they learn that the organization is not flexible to respond to challenges, if they feel it doesn’t communicate the bottom line, and if they don’t see transparency in fiscal governance, then donors may rethink where they are putting their next dollar.

So how do you communicate your finances to donors?

Really all stakeholders should have an understanding of your finances.  You should make at least annual presentations—albeit less detailed than what you show your board—of your inflows and outflows plus your major financial challenges.  This is not just a rehash of the annual report, which is more of a “look-back” document, but rather a clear indication of your strategies for the future.  Incorporated into this presentation should be an explanation of how past financial decisions have affected future mission-driven outcomes.   You should also include the ways in which you change the lives of the people you serve.   In other words, it’s not just a PowerPoint with numbers.

Some institutions find this a shocking idea. But your Form 990 is already out there for the world to see. The question is:  are you backing it up with good fiscal management policies?  Are you communicating the coming challenges as you see them? Are you outlining the staffing, programmatic and expense item changes you are making in response to an increase in need or a decrease in funds, or both? How are you still meeting your mission goals?

When donors, staff, trustees and other stakeholders are included in the budget conversation, they are much less likely to pick on a particular item they hear about through the grapevSigning a Checkine.

In his new book What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis talks about how the internet has become not just a collection of information, but a conversation. In much the same way, the post Sarbanes-Oxley, new Form 990, GAAP accounting rules world of nonprofit fiscal management is also becoming more of a conversation. You can either put your head in the sand and pretend it’s not going on, or you can engage your stakeholders and understand their perspectives as together you create your future financial plan.

As the snursechool year draws to a close, it’s common for many organizations that run on this calendar to assess how they’ve done.   Specifically, board and staff may do self-evaluations, and boards evaluate the executive, the one staff member for whom they are responsible.  But these assessments are just part of the picture of how an organization measures its effectiveness or shortfalls.

How are You Assessing Your Impact?

One of the tools now being used by the nonprofit and public sector worlds, and which has been around in the for-profit sector since its inception, is the concept of ROI, or Return on Investment.

What’s the definition of “Investment”? For nonprofits, foundations and public sector organizations, the investment is a simple equation:  Investment = Volunteer Time + Donor Dollars + Staff Time + Goods or Services Provided.  All of these combined reflect your investment in the communities you serve.

What about “Return”?  Some organizations measure impact by number of people served.  Some calculate the value of the volunteer hours they expend in a community if they had been paid in real dollars.  Some groups measure impact against a set of goals or outcomes determined at the start of a project or year.  But for the independent sector, this is always a tricky equation, because ultimately you are trying to change human lives.  And sometimes that impact can’t be easily measured.  And so you also need to find stories about the communities you have served, the families helped, the habitats rescued.  You need to find a way to merge hard data and benchmarks with a more nuanced picture of your impact and responsiveness to need.

Why Measuring Impact Matters

It’s a daunting task, yet public and nonprofit sector organizations must try.  One reason is that the accounting scandals of the recent past, the Congress’s response with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the country’s current economic crisis and the IRS’s new Form 990 have brought with them an enhanced focus on transparency and accountability.  Donors, volunteers and staff are all looking at these measures, too, to make important decisions about their own investments of time and money.  Now all nonprofits and federal sector agencies must find a way to demonstrate more tangibly how their work affects their outcomes.

Back in 2005, The Panel on the Nonprofit Sector (established by Independent Sector) made recommendations that as a best practice, charitable organizations should design procedures for measuring and evaluating their program accomplishments based on specific goals and objectives. Today the need for measuring outcomes becomes even more urgent.

Looking Towards the Future

Just last month, President Obama signed the landmark Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will enable millions of Americans to serve one to two years in a wide range of nonprofits. With this kind of influx of human capital “investment,” nonprofits will need to think boldly about how to measure the impact they have not only on the communities they serve, but also on the very individuals who are being added to their volunteer ranks.   In other words, they will need a way to track the “multiplier effect” of what these individuals learn inside their organizations but also bring back to other groups and communities when they leave.

How does your organization measure its mission impact or ROI?  Please share your benchmarking and evaluation ideas and stories.

© 2009 Amy DeLouise

This week, federal regulators plan to release the methods they are using for the “stress test” being applied to banks accepting TARP money. Non-profits should be developing their own stress test to assure soundness to funders, who are both private donors and the American taxpayer (by way of the gift of tax-exempt status).

Why should non-profits conduct a stress test of their own?

Despite signs that America’s economic engine may be coming out of a stall, non-profits have a long way to go before times get good again. There is a higher than ever demand for their services, especially in the social sector, as more and more people lose jobs and health care coverage. Donations continue to drop in many sectors. At the same time, new and existing donors must be assured that the charities they support can withstand more months of hardship.

Five Ways to Stress Test Your Nonprofit

1. Increase Transparency. Good governance is critical to success, but especially during lean times. Confirm that your board decision-making is fully transparent, documented and bench-marked. Especially decisions around executive compensation.

2. Ensure Sustainability. Confirm that your organization has sufficient cash-flow for ongoing operations. Some say have as much as one year’s operating capital on hand. This may not be realistic for smaller charities. Still, you should assess and update your working capital assumptions so that donors know you can deliver.

3. Assess Human Resources. Do you have the right people on the job? Evaluate staff capabilities through regular reviews, but also a build strong professional development program so that you are cultivating talents from within. Bringing along a promising staffer costs much less money than launching a search.

4. Engage the Board. During tough economic times, it’s also important to tap the talents on your board. And that means more than check-writing. Pair experienced board mentors with staff and newer board members. Leverage board connections wisely. Consider them a valuable resource for not only financial contacts, but also great volunteers, future board leaders, and important community connections. And most importantly, focus board members’ limited time on the tasks that will have the most impact for your mission.
5. Focus on Vision. When times are hard, it’s easy to get mired in the day-to-day and lose track of the overall vision of the institution. Whether your goal is a world without hunger, a river that is unpolluted, or a school where children thrive, keeping the vision front and center is critical to delivering results. Set up a regular “vision-checkup” for the organization so that staff and volunteers have a way to connect daily, weekly, monthly, and annually with the vision and know they are making a difference.

These are just a few ways the non-profit sector can ensure it uses donor funds wisely, including those of the American taxpayer.