Branding Boards

Editors’ note: This article is featured in NPQ‘s summer 2014 edition: “21st-Century Communications: Authenticity Matters.”

One of the most useful nonprofit management books of this year is The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity by Nathalie Laidler-Kylander and Julia Shepard Stenzel.1 As an executive director working systematically at the re-branding of the organization I lead, the authors’ insights into the particular value and role of the nonprofit brand could not be timelier. What I didn’t expect was how much the book’s concepts would challenge me to think differently about the composition and focus of the nonprofit board of directors, including my own. I serve on multiple boards, have numerous boards as clients, and report to a board of directors, yet struggle to define and tap the full purpose of a nonprofit board. I am certainly not alone. Many have written eloquently in these pages in search of the board’s value beyond the fiduciary—David Renz and Judy Freiwirth, to name just two governance thought leaders. Though Laidler-Kylander and Stenzel did not set out to write a governance book, their elevation of the significance of nonprofit brands and their nonprofit-specific framework for brand management may yet provide a very useful way to think about who serves on our boards of directors and what orientation they can best bring to that most ephemeral of leadership roles.

To explore the power of brand as an organizing principle for boards of directors, I have selected three of The Brand IDEA’s core concepts and considered their implications for how we compose our boards and orient their individual and collective work, finding the conceptual elements of brand and brand management to be strikingly germane to what the board as a collective and its individual members need to embody, continuously understand, and extend broadly across an organization’s constituencies.

  1. Brand Definition
    “An identifier and concept that imparts information and creates perceptions and emotions.”2
  2. Brand Value
    “We [. . .] have observed [. . .] a paradigm shift in the way nonprofit actors perceive and understand brand. This shift has led to a view of brand not as a fundraising tool but as a critical strategic asset, one that embodies the organization’s mission and values and supports broad participative engagement and collaborations that maximize impact.”3
  3. Distinction between Nonprofit and For-Profit Brand Management
    “The brand IDEA differs from for-profit brand management in three fundamental ways: first, brand is focused on the mission rather than on consumers; second, positioning is used to gain organizational clarity and to support collaboration rather than to gain competitive advantage; and third, control is replaced by participative engagement.”4

Brand Democracy and the Board’s Purpose

The authors describe brand democracy as in place when “everyone develops a clear understanding of the organization’s core identity and can become an effective brand advocate and ambassador. Every employee and volunteer authentically and personally communicates the essence of the brand.”5 How much time have we wasted in our sector helping board members memorize mission statements, or, more typically, lamenting how long and un-memorizable they are? What if, instead, the request of board members was to deeply understand the current and aspirational brand of the organization and to be the über-ambassadors for it? What if each board member took on the core identity of the organization as his or her own leading up to, during, and well beyond board service?

That is the essence of brand democracy: being part of the core identity of an organization is no longer limited to specific people on an organizational chart or to finite term limits—it can’t be contained that way. So instead of reading reports at monthly meetings about the staff’s communications efforts, for instance, board members would be a part of the data set: blogging, tweeting, and making public appearances themselves. In this vision, the board is an invaluable multiplier of the staff’s voice, and because its members’ skillful ambassadorship is volunteer based, it has a special credibility and resonance all its own. Taking this idea to its fullest, the monthly or quarterly board meeting as the core place where board members “show up” becomes increasingly anachronistic. If board members are the agents and models of brand democracy, their true value is out in the field every day. Perhaps board meetings become focused primarily on equipping members for their fieldwork ahead.

Brand Identity and the Board’s Composition

The authors write, “When the brand is anchored in the mission, values, and strategy, the identity becomes the internal reflection or collective perception of everyone in the organization, and captures the very nature or raison d’être of the organization itself [italics mine].”6 If we really mean everyone—not only paid staff—then the implications of brand identity for board composition are significant. It’s my experience that many potential board candidates will feel aligned with the mission of an organization— able to say with conviction that they care about climate change or youth access to the performing arts, for instance. But what if the request of board members is something much deeper than that? What if the request is not only that you care about the cause but also that you embody the organization’s values and can discern and articulate the particular value of its chosen strategies? If it is the latter, I suspect the potential pool of appropriate board members for a given organization gets quite a bit smaller, and, moreover, I suspect the board candidate screening approach becomes more similar to that of senior staff in the depth of alignment sought than to the classic board recruitment matrix, with its requisite attorneys, accountants, and community power brokers.

Indeed, Laidler-Kylander and Stenzel spend considerable time on the centrality of values to brand and brand identity: “This idea of living the values is connected to how authentic an organization and its brand are perceived to be.”7 This suggests two things: first, that organizational values have to come “out of the closet” and mean something e