Editors’ note: This article, which debuted online on July 15, 2019, comes from the summer 2019 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, which focuses on accountability to stakeholders. It was adapted from “Brand Strategy Co-Creation in a Nonprofit Context: A Strategy-as-Practice Approach” (Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 47, no. 5, October 2018), as part of NPQ’s partnership with NVSQ to provide the sector with a research-to-practice bridge (and vice versa).

Societal changes related to the continuous development of new social media determine the conditions under which organizations operate today. Stakeholders have free access to information about organizations that are of relevance to them, and have the means to get actively involved in and even shape these organizations’ branding efforts.1 These developments require organizations to be ever more transparent and accessible—especially in societally relevant, nonprofit contexts, which attract immense stakeholder interest and voluntary stakeholder involvement.2 The understanding that brands emerge through continuous social interactions and practices among multiple, networked stakeholders3 is missing in the nonprofit literature. This article aims to shed a light on these dynamics, outlining possible implications and practice ideas.

Nonprofit literature generally acknowledges the tendency toward more stakeholder involvement, and approaches the phenomenon from both managerial and stakeholder perspectives. Literature on constituent participation, for example, highlights the relevance and importance of citizen participation and empowerment in community-based organizations4 and the need to “establish governance mechanisms permitting constituents to participate in the shaping of the organization’s mission, vision, and strategies.”5 Literature on participatory management and stakeholder democracy advocates different degrees of stakeholder participation in formerly company-internal processes.6 Literature on stakeholder and community engagement discusses strategies to engage stakeholders7 and related innovation opportunities.8 Within the vast literature on nonprofit-related coproduction, another perspective focuses on the involvement of citizens in the provision of their own welfare services (e.g., child care).9 Finally, nonprofit literature also adopts the concept of cocreation in arguing for a “move from sole creation to co-creation” and to “develop more inclusive processes,”10 in which stakeholders are no longer only a passive audience but active agents of cocreation.11 Although nonprofit literature overall has clearly witnessed a paradigmatic shift, nonprofit branding literature still largely advocates a traditional, managerially oriented perspective.12 Continuing to treat nonprofit brands as consistent and congruent bundles of components characterized by some stable essence that serves as a basis for identification and differentiation, though, might no longer suffice to differentiate brands from competitors or to attract and bind stakeholders that are of utmost importance to the survival of nonprofit organizations (e.g., funders, clients, volunteers, community groups, citizens).13

In these times, nonprofit brands need to be more adequately defined as dynamic social interactive processes involving a multiplicity of stakeholders14—that is, “any individual or group inside or outside the organization that shows an interest in a brand and actively participates in brand-related discourse.”15 In line with recent branding literature, these interactive branding processes are (a) “cocreative” (in the sense that they consist of ongoing discourses among multiple stakeholders that require access to and transparency of information on company-internal processes and structures,16 and provide involved stakeholders with “actualized value” that “is subjective and varies as a function of individualized experiences”17); and (b) “strategic” (in the sense that they shape a brand’s mission, vision, goals, and objectives,18 allowing organizations and their stakeholders to jointly decide what they want to achieve and how19).

Contrary to the core assumptions of management-oriented approaches to nonprofit branding brought forward by traditional brand-oriented nonprofit literature,20 nonprofit brands and their meanings are no longer “manageable” in the conventional sense—that is, unilaterally determined by nonprofit brand management.21 Managing nonprofit brands requires acknowledging multiple stakeholders’ involvement in processes and structures related to brand development22 and understanding organizational reality in all its “discomforting complexity, conflict, ambiguity and flux.”23

Conditions for Brand Strategy Cocreation to Occur

A first condition is the existence of strong relationships between the organization and its internal and external stakeholders, characterized by reciprocal commitment,24 transparency, and access to information on formerly company-internal processes and structures.25 High levels of voluntary commitment from the stakeholder side are especially likely if stakeholders have a strong stake in the brand and expect to receive high levels of subjective value from brand-related experiences.26 Nonprofit brands face a dynamic reality these days: It is wise to treat nonprofit brand strategy cocreation as a continuous and dynamic process involving multiple stakeholders; be open to the influence of multiple contexts; and address the new particularities that affect the management of nonprofit organizations and their intangible assets.

Values also matter here. Today, nonprofit organizations need to approach value management differently. Values actually emerge, and are constantly negotiated, through processes of strategic branding and their related everyday (and at least partially) routinized practices. Constant joint performance and (re-)evaluation of values-in-use are an important condition for brand strategy cocreation.

Also important:

  • Organization-stakeholder relationships—characterized by reciprocal commitment, transparency, access, and joint values-in-use—are a precondition for brand strategy cocreation to occur.
  • Stakeholders are more likely to engage in voluntary brand strategy cocreation if they expect to receive subjective value from the brand experience.

Our work has revealed that nonprofit brand strategy cocreation strongly involves the “actions, interactions and negotiations of multiple actors.”27 Diverse stakeholders—such as (for instance, in a child care center) team members, parents and their children, the local authorities funding the institution, and the wider community (such as parents living in the neighborhood)—are continuously involved in defining the relationships among one another. These efforts result in routinized processes of strategic branding and temporarily stable strategy manifestations that shape the organization and its intangible assets while helping to fulfill the expectations and obligations underlying various organization–stakeholder relationships.

These processes of strategic branding in action are reenacted by involved practitioners, and help ensure the nonprofit brand’s continued existence on a daily basis. And although it might sound like a contradiction, adopting a process-oriented perspective on brand strategy development means embracing the possibility that no final outcome will ever be reached. That’s good news.

All of this brings a different perspective on nonprofit brand management, shifting away from a highly rationalist prescriptive to a social constructionist reflective approach, with the possibility of identifying new ways of maneuvering a brand within nonprofit contexts where stakeholders heavily influence the brand strategy cocreation process.28


  1. Christine Vallaster and Sylvia von Wallpach, “An online discursive inquiry into the social dynamics of multi-stakeholder brand meaning co-creation,” Journal of Business Research 66, no. 9 (September 2013): 1505–15.
  2. Robin T. Byerly, “Business IN Society: The Social Contract Revisited,” Journal of Organisational Transformation & Social Change 10, no. 1 (April 2013): 4–20.
  3. Mary Jo Hatch and Majken Schultz, “Toward a theory of brand co-creation with implications for brand governance,” Journal of Brand Management 17, no. 8 (July 2010): 590–604; and Michael A. Merz, Yi He, and Stephen L. Vargo, “The evolving brand logic: A service-dominant logic perspective,” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 37, no. 3 (September 2009): 328–44.
  4. Donna Hardina, “Strategies for Citizen Participation and Empowerment in Non-profit, Community-Based Organizations,” Community Development 37, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 4–17.
  5. Chao Guo and Gregory D. Saxton, “Voice-In, Voice-Out: Constituent Participation and Nonprofit Advocacy,” Nonprofit Policy Forum 1, no. 1, Article 5 (October 2010).
  6. Yves Fassin et al., “Complementarities Between Stakeholder Management and Participative Management: Evidence From the Youth Care Sector,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 46, no. 3 (June 2017): 586–606.
  7. Frances Bowen, Aloysius Newenham-Kahindi, and Irene Herremans, “When Suits Meet Roots: The Antecedents and Consequences of Community Engagement Strategy,” Journal of Business Ethics 95, no. 2 (August 2010): 297–318; and Kristen Lovejoy, Richard D. Waters, and Gregory D. Saxton, “Engaging stakeholders through Twitter: How nonprofit organizations are getting more out of 140 characters or less,” Public Relations Review 38, no. 2 (June 2012): 313–18.
  8. Sara Holmes and Lance Moir, “Developing a conceptual framework to identify corporate innovations through engagement with non-profit stakeholders,” Corporate Governance: The International Journal of Business in Society 7, no. 4 (August 2007): 414–22.
  9. Taco Brandsen and Victor Pestoff, “Co-production, the third sector and the delivery of public services: An introduction,” Public Management Review 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 493–501.
  10. Femida Handy, Jeffrey L. Brudney, and Lucas C. P. M. Meijs, “From the Editors’ Desk,” Editorial, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, November 18, 2012.
  11. James E. Austin and M. May Seitanidi, “Collaborative Value Creation: A Review of Partnering Between Nonprofits and Businesses: Part I. Value Creation Spectrum and Collaboration Stages,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 41, no. 5 (October 2012): 726–58; and James E. Austin and M. May Seitanidi, “Collaborative Value Creation: A Review of Partnering Between Nonprofits and Businesses: Part 2. Partnership Processes and Outcomes,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 41, no. 6 (December 2012): 929–68.
  12. See Michael T. Ewing and Julie Napoli, “Developing and validating a multidimensional nonprofit brand orientation scale,” Journal of Business Research 58, no. 6 (June 2005): 841–53; Philippa Hankinson, “Brand orientation in the charity sector: A framework for discussion and research,” International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing 6, no. 3 (September 2001): 231–42; and Markus Voeth and Uta Herbst, “The Concept of Brand Personality as an Instrument for Advanced Non-Profit Branding—An Empirical Analysis,” Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing 19, no. 1 (February 2008): 71–97.
  13. Kunle Akingbola, “Strategic choices and change in non-profit organizations,” Strategic Change 15, no. 6 (September–October 2006): 265–81; and Sylvia von Wallpach, Andrea Hemetsberger, and Peter Espersen, “Performing identities: Processes of brand and stakeholder identity co-construction,” Journal of Business Research 70 (January 2017): 443–52.
  14. Bas Hillebrand, Paul H. Driessen, and Oliver Koll, “Stakeholder marketing: theoretical foundations and required capabilities,” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 43, no. 4 (July 2015): 411–28; and Merz, He, and Vargo, “The evolving brand logic.”
  15. Vallaster and von Wallpach, “An online discursive inquiry into the social dynamics of multi-stakeholder brand meaning co-creation”: 1506–7.
  16. Hatch and Schultz, “Toward a theory of brand co-creation with implications for brand governance”; and C. K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy, “Co-creation experiences: The next practice in value creation,” Journal of Interactive Marketing 18, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 5–14.
  17. Venkat Ramaswamy and Kerimcan Ozcan, The Co-Creation Paradigm (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), 16.
  18. B. Bhattacharya, Daniel Korschun, and Sankar Sen, “Strengthening Stakeholder–Company Relationships Through Mutually Beneficial Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives,” Journal of Business Ethics 85, no. 2, Supplement (April 2009): 257–72.
  19. Silvia Biraghi and Rossella Chiara Gambetti, “Corporate branding: Where are we? A systematic communication-based inquiry,” Journal of Marketing Communications 21, no. 4 (July 2015): 260–83.
  20. See, for example, Ewing and Napoli, “Developing and validating a multidimensional nonprofit brand orientation scale”; Hankinson, “Brand orientation in the charity sector”; and Voeth and Herbst, “The Concept of Brand Personality as an Instrument for Advanced Non-Profit Branding.”
  21. Tracey Chadwick-Coule, “Social Dynamics and the Strategy Process: Bridging or Creating a Divide Between Trustees and Staff?,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 40, no. 1 (February 2011): 33–56.
  22. Hina Khan and Donna Ede, “How do not-for-profit SMEs attempt to develop a strong brand in an increasingly saturated market?,” Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development 16, no. 2 (May 2009): 335–54; and Dale Miller and Bill Merrilees, “Rebuilding community corporate brands: A total stakeholder involvement approach,” Journal of Business Research 66, no. 2 (February 2013): 172–79.
  23. Joanne Martin, Organizational Culture: Mapping the Terrain (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2002), 9.
  24. Akingbola, “Strategic choices and change in non-profit organizations”; and Mark H. Moore, “Managing for Value: Organizational Strategy in for-Profit, Nonprofit, and Governmental Organizations,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 29, no. 1, Supplement (March 2000): 183–204.
  25. Prahalad and Ramaswamy, “Co-creation experiences.”
  26. Ramaswamy and Ozcan, The Co-Creation Paradigm.
  27. Paula Jarzabkowski, Julia Balogun, and David Seidl, “Strategizing: The challenges of a practice perspective,” Human Relations 60, no. 1 (January 2007): 5–27.
  28. Chadwick-Coule, “Social Dynamics and the Strategy Process”; and T. C. Melewar, Manto Gotsi, and Constantine Andriopoulos, “Shaping the research agenda for corporate branding: avenues for future research,” European Journal of Marketing 46, no. 5 (May 2012): 600–8.