3 Brand Building Rules for Successful Nonprofits

Back in 1998 I took over a website for a struggling faith-based organization. The project came on referral from a successful client who asked me if I could “help out a friend”.

As we got deeper into the project, it became more and more clear that the leader of this org had unrealistic expectations.

Like many people, he was looking for a silver bullet. He wanted to be a quick hit.

He was sure that the reason their organization was not growing was because not enough people knew they existed and the cure in his mind was to generate more awareness.

The new website design went well, but in addition to the look, feel, and user experience, we tried to help this leader understand he also needed to do some work on his content. It was not bad, but it was not exceptional.

It was also clear from the messaging that he was trying to build up his organization more than deliver on the mission of the organization – to help people.

Don’t get me wrong. The guy’s heart was in the right place, but he really believed that if he was great, he could help others be great.

Because of this, much of the content was promotional and self-serving.

Once we demonstrated that a new site with great SEO and promotions to generate large traffic jumps were not resulting in any more engagements, product sales, or event attendance he started to understand something important: in order to truly connect, you have to be real.

You have to help others be great. You have to solve problems, provide products and services, and engage your audience in an authentic way.

While, on a personal level, this was very frustrating to the leader, it was devastating to the organization’s brand – and that leads us an immutable truth about organizational development: your single most valuable asset is your brand.

I can hear it now… “Our people! Our mission! Puppy dogs and kitty cats! Saving the planet!! Our brand? Really?”

Yes, really. Your brand.

Your “brand” is the overall impression donors have about your organization.

If that impression is poor, you simply will not achieve the best success possible. As the old adage says, there is no such thing as a second first impression.

Think about it like this: you can have the best people in the world, but if donors think your organization is not trustworthy or they like what you stand for, but they have low confidence in your ability to perform, they will give their precious gifts to someone else.

You must intentionally focus on the value of your brand. While that may seem obvious, it is often more easier said than done.

When someone first hears of your organization, you have to make sure the impression you leave is clear, compelling, and consistently aligns to your mission, values, and culture.

Your brand is more than your logo and color swatches. It is more than the name on a building, slick product packaging, or a Sunday circular newspaper ad.

Those things do matter, but the most successful organizations understand that every day you and your people are building up or tearing down how people perceive your organization.

Forbes contributor, Jerry McLaughlin, said it like this: “Put simply, your ‘brand’ is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name. It’s everything the public thinks it knows about your name brand offering—both factual (e.g. it comes in a robin’s-egg-blue box), and emotional (e.g. it’s romantic).  Your brand name exists objectively; people can see it. It’s fixed. But your brand exists only in someone’s mind.”

Some brands have fantastic equity. Think about Nike and you immediately think winner, champion, innovation… Or Coca-Cola and people think refreshing. Tesla means innovation, Ferrari means thrill, Jaguar means luxury, Toyota means reliability and Ford trucks are tough enough to get the construction done with plenty left over to get your boat to the lake for the weekend.

By contrast, some organizations make mistakes that become legendary in their downfall. Sometimes they just get outpaced by innovators. Other times, leaders turn a blind eye to integrity issues in the pursuit of short term goals.

This is unfortunately common in business, government, and the nonprofit community.

Use the following “brand builder rules” to help you shape the image of your organization, paving the way for success & growth.

Brand Builder Rule # 1 – Cultivate an environment of trust

Be intentional to reinforce a cultural mindset that prizes trust.

Allow me to ask some pointed questions: Do you trust your people? Can your people trust you? Are you looking out for their best interest and are you removing the barriers that breed mistrust? Are you watching for areas inside your organization which cause mistrust between departments or individuals or processes?

While you are at it, remember that trust is more than honesty. Trust is also creating a safe place where people can strive for best results without fear of repercussion.

Safe environments also avoid “gotcha” moments which exploit weakness or error. Safe environments don’t throw people under the bus on purpose or accident.

I recently helped a friend prepare for an upcoming speaking engagement to a peer group as well as several leaders from the organization where they work. I was saddened to hear that there was recently a rift in the ranks because something discussed in confidence and in proper chain of command was leaked by the top leader’s personal assistant. Ouch. The result was that my friend no longer felt like the environment was safe, even at the top level.

Creating an environment of trust will flow through your organization and impact how your constituents feel about your brand.

Interestingly, brands who make mistakes but face them candidly don’t take the same kind of hit against the brand. By contrast, organizations that gloss over their problems or lie in the name of good PR get quickly hammered in the court of public perception.

Brand Builder Rule #2 – Reinforce clarity about your mission, goals, and expectations

Constituents need to understand what you do and why you do it.

If your messaging (or worse, your staff) is confused, there will be little to no chance that your constituents will be any less confused.

Do you remember the old “telephone” game where people passed a message around the room and by the time it made the whole circle it was completely different than it started? It is a very simple demonstration of how the quality and clarity of information degrades with each transition.

To combat this issue, you have to be super simple and super clear — then perpetually reinforce this mantra when it comes to your mission, goals, and expectations.

This is the only way your organization can present a consistent, cohesive message about who you are and what your organization stands for.

Many people mistakenly think that the full extent of branding is about always using the same colors and logo. While staying within the approved style guide is certainly a branding best practice, the larger goal is to provide consistency which translates into subconscious clarity.

Likewise, it is essential that your activities, marketing, and engagements align properly with the organization you aspire to be and the image you work so hard to create in the marketplace.

It’s like being invited to someone’s house for dinner, but realizing upon arrival they are selling something. No one likes a bait and switch, and the only way to avoid this is to provide proper guidance and clear messaging.

Brand Building Rule #3 – Celebrate a culture of empowered people

It is not all about you. (Sorry.)

You can’t do everything—and honestly, even if you could, you shouldn’t.

If the number one asset of your organization is a powerful brand – an image in the mind of your donors that you are the preferred organization to support – then you have to have a team who consistently advances this image every time they intersect with the community you serve.

The only way to do this is with empowered people.

Not long ago, I was in a meeting with Horst Schulze, the founder of Capella Hotels and former president & COO of Ritz Carlton. In this meeting, he described how they implemented a company-wide policy which empowered every employee, regardless of position, to make situations right with guests.

No asking permission. No checking the rules. No making a guest wait for someone at a higher level.

Just empowered employees making the best decision to guarantee the best experience possible in support of an unparalleled brand.

There are a lot of things to remember and build into your team when it comes to how the community perceives the value of your organization.

So whether you are leading the charge, just getting started, working through a public relations challenge, or refocusing to stop a slipping revenue base, start focusing on these essential brand building rules.

Be honest with yourself and your staff and become intentional about elevating discussions and work on your brand beyond a sideline task in marketing to an organization-wide imperative.

This will have a direct result on the success of your organization.

 

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