004: Nonprofit Branding: 2 Critical Elements Every Brand Needs

When nonprofits think of branding, they likely have logos, colors, and fonts in mind.

But there’s more to branding than that.

I recently interviewed Brandon Crist, Owner and CEO of Brand Mentors, on the Nonprofit Growth podcast, about what makes up a cohesive brand, and how nonprofits can pull together disparate elements to make their message and brand clear.

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Here are the highlights from that interview.

Defining Branding for Nonprofits

There are two aspects to branding:

  1. Your look, which is what everybody thinks of. A logo, colors, a business card. Your look needs to be consistent. Different shades of blue, varying fonts . . . these are brand killers.
  2. Your message. This is the other side: the story, the community connections, the voice you have. 

Make sure that people are perceiving your brand the way you want them to perceive it. The hope is that if you’re showcasing your brand, you’ll be perceived consistently and correctly.

“You want to make sure that people are perceiving your brand the way that you want them to perceive it.” —Brandon Crist

How Branding Plays Out in a Nonprofit Organization

Brandon thinks nonprofits view themselves as “different” in the brand world.

They think they get a free pass because they’re a nonprofit. The reality is the opposite: they should be more in control of their brand than a business. 

A nonprofit should make sure they’re using their brand as a platform to showcase who they are, what they do, and why clients should work with them. 

Many of Brandon’s clients have a hodgepodge of elements pulled together overtime when they come to him. They present the “mess” and say, “Here’s our brand.” They have no control over that brand.

So why is branding important for a nonprofit? Because you can be in control of your brand, rather than your audience controlling it.

The Elements That Make Up a Nonprofit’s Brand

The “look” side of your brand includes these elements:

  • Logo
  • Colors
  • Photographs
  • Websites
  • Fonts
  • Print collateral
  • Emails/Email signatures
  • Promo materials
  • Signage
  • Clothing

Anything you give to a potential user of your service should have your brand on it.

The “voice” side should include these elements:

  • A clear message 
  • A well-known mission statement 
  • A story that is easy to connect with
  • Testimonials
  • A true call to action

It’s very important that your story is conveyed in the community the way you want and that your connections (your board members, leadership, etc.) are delivering the message the right way.

Branding Strategies Nonprofits Have Successfully Employed

Obviously, there’s a long list of items that make up a brand. It can be scary. 

Brandon’s advice? Just get started.

Keep a folder and add to it over time. Build on the foundation.

“The first thing I always recommend is, ‘You need to set up a brand guideline,’” Brandon said. “Make sure everyone who touches your brand, whether it’s a volunteer or a board member, understands who you are and how people can work with you.”

They should know what colors to use. They should use consistent fonts. They should only use approved photos. That sort of thing.

Also, follow some folks leading the branding world out there. For example, follow Donald Miller, the head of the “StoryBrand” movement. 

More On Brand Guidelines

Brand Mentors breaks their brand guidelines down by asking a few questions:

  • Who is your audience? Who are you serving?
  • What is their number one pain point? How are you addressing this?

From there, you can come up with ways to communicate your message. 

There’s a nonprofit in East Texas called St. Paul Children’s Foundation. They provide clothing, shoes, food, and dental services to those who need them. 

All of their branding is geared towards children, bright colors, etc. But at the same time, they have care graphs of information that use approved messaging. They don’t write random messages here and there. 

They have a paragraph that tells their story, and they use that paragraph consistently in their messages. They also have a set of bullet points that they pull out and use to answer a lot of questions they receive.

How Nonprofits Can Get Started With Branding

“Don’t wait. If you’re thinking, ‘Maybe we’re not telling our story the right way,’ make it a point to get it on your agenda.” —Brandon Crist

1. Assemble What You Have

Find everything you have—any images, fonts, etc. Print and digital collateral, anything that’s current. Put it in a stack on your desk or a folder on your computer.

From there, make a determination about what is up to par. Do you need to redesign your logo or colors? Are fonts different across documents? 

This is usually the most painful piece. People typically

  • Don’t want to show where they are, because they’re embarrassed.
  • Find it overwhelming to put so much into a folder.

Don’t be afraid of trying. Start doing it, then once you get the painful part of the evaluation out of the way, you’ll know where to go.

2. Create a Brand Folder

Have one folder where you keep the elements you want to hold onto, and call it “Our brand” or something along those lines. The important thing is to keep the elements together. All of the things that centralize your brand should end up in this one folder.

3. Develop a “Brand Bible”

Put all of the information into one document so you have a digital PDF you can pass off to new staff members or graphic designers helping you with a project. For lack of a better term, this is your “brand bible.”

Brandon recommends separating out visual and messaging. At the same time, once you have a good idea of what you’re going for, they need to end up back together so you can ensure the two parts of your brand go together well when you present them to your board or team.

Final Thought

“Don’t wait,” Brandon told me. “If you’re thinking, ‘Maybe we’re not telling our story the right way,’ make it a point to get it on your agenda.”

You can find this interview, and many more, by subscribing to the Nonprofit Growth podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get podcasts.

Dan Sanchez, MBA

Dan Sanchez is a marketing director, co-host of the B2B Growth show, and blogger. He holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and BS in Marketing Management from Western Governors University. Learn more about Dan »

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