Nonprofit Branding 2013: What Has Changed?

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Nonprofit Branding

Editors’ note: On February 20, 2013, the Nonprofit Quarterly and the Alliance for Nonprofit Management hosted an online discussion with Kate Barr of Nonprofits Assistance Fund, Jeanne Bell of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, Robin Katcher of Management Assistance Group, the author of this article, and, as moderator, NPQ’s Ruth McCambridge. The topic was Nonprofit Capacity Building 2013: What Has Changed? The discussion inspired the author to think about the question as it extends to nonprofit branding, and the ensuing article originally appeared on the website of Creation In Common, on February 22; it was subsequently published on NPQ’s website, on February 25.

So, Nonprofit Branding 2013: What Has Changed? Well. . . everything.

When I read Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community over ten years ago, I saw an opportunity for the nonprofit field to become a central force in rebuilding social capital in communities across the country. Unfortunately, the tools and resources as well as capability to take advantage of this opportunity were not fully in place back then.

First, we needed to see information technology not as a peripheral function within our organization but central to our mission pursuits. Second, we needed to see our identity less as an extension of our mission statement than as a link between the public perception of the impact we create and our higher calling to strengthen communities. Third, we needed to embrace social media fully and completely, as both a technology and a shift in expectations about messaging, engagement, participation, and loyalty.
Over the last ten years, we have addressed many facets of these needs within the field, yet we are no closer to positioning the nonprofit sector as a leading force in building social capital. This brings me to what has significantly changed about nonprofit branding: the ways in which our stakeholders want to participate and ultimately become engaged in our work.

The basic assumption we make about participation is that we can unilaterally dictate the terms of the engagement. Too many of us believe that if we clearly communicate what we are about and do it in a moving and impassioned way, we can incentivize participation. Thus we promote a message that implicitly says: “Our needs first.” What we have overlooked is how potential stakeholders are now largely immune to finely worded messages, pitches, and canned elevator speeches. Stakeholders are building connections that plug them directly into networks they care about, where they can go hands on and be actively engaged. Here the nonprofit crafts council is supplanted by the knitting circle meeting at a local bar or the YWCA competing with a group of seventy-five Facebook friends who organize a weekly workout at a local park (by the way, I belong to this group, have made lots of friends, and lost a bunch of weight).

We have access to the tools and resources needed to build meaningful relationships with our stakeholders; what we lack are the capabilities to do it in a way that advances authenticity and mobilizes the public will. During the online discussion, Robin Katcher spoke of her organization’s work in strengthening “networked leadership” and harnessing the power of “co-creation.” This embraces the fact that real decisions that affect our communities are being made not within an individual nonprofit but out in the networks that stakeholders have forged. This requires us to “co-create” our brands—building a Cause, not just an identity. Here, we leverage the social cohesion needed to take action in order to advance the Cause. Whereas different stakeholders have different motivations, the Cause (when defined) becomes the shared space (a community in its own right) where collective ambitions can be focused and directed.

In order to do this, we need to make a few major systemic changes in how we go about our work. First, we must recognize the potential in our boards to be what Peter Dobkin Hall describes as “boundary-spanners”—making the connection between the needs and will of the community and the organization’s sense of purpose. Second, we need to establish a sustainable dialogue with all our stakeholders about what we are together and how we can create doorways for others to influence the Cause. Third, we need to invest more deeply in our capabilities around “co-creation” and “networked leadership”; we need more creative spaces in which nonprofit leaders (both board and staff) can interact, share ideas, and sharpen skills.

I am afraid we are losing the opportunity to position our field as a primary catalyst for creating greater social capital. We are no longer competing against each other or even for-profit or government interests. We face something more powerful, the full realization of the self-empowered and networked stakeholder—at once an individual, but always an army. We can continue to try yelling our messages at them, or we can stop, pull up a chair, and listen.


  • Danielle

    Hi Carlo,

    You are spot on with the need for collaborative branding and organizational identity. I think what you are trying to get us to think about is the stake holders involved in really creating a community approach to nonprofits. This is important for lasting relationships, donors, and the health of the organization. Would it be possible to repost this onto our blog? I think this message of strategy is a fresh way of thinking.

  • Denise Dickinson

    Very well written; no longer is the marketing and fundraising team it for building donations, but it’s the social media managers. Those who position their organizations to have the most earned media will be out of the gate ahead of the others and sure to continue to build on it with new apps like the vine added to their twitter. It is an exciting time!

  • Carlo Cuesta


    Thanks for you comment. Regarding reposting, I think it best to check with the folks at the Quarterly. Regards, Carlo

  • Karla Raines

    YIt is time to consider how we can best live our brand through the vary nature of our business model design.

  • Chris Short

    I was recently discussing this very shift in thought the other day at a regional peer workshop. In higher education, the mantra for the past decade or two has been: “we are all recruiters.”
    Now it is the shift in development to ‘preach’ that “we are all fundraisers”.
    I personally advocate my own motto: connect need with opportunity. That goes for the dollar and the donor. If we are all connectors, that relationship is far more than a dual flow conduit. It is an organic, growing, exponentially replicating process. We are all viruses, transmitting a message yet modifying and carrying a piece of each relationship on to the next opportunity. Thanks for getting me thinking.