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Navigating the Paradox of Nonprofit Branding

A version of this article originally appeared in AdWeek.

Branding is never easy, but nonprofit branding poses special challenges. Potential partners, team members, donors, and advocates can have conflicting expectations when it comes to professional efforts to define a nonprofit organization’s profile. On the one hand, thrift and efficiency are held in high-esteem; on the other, there is a natural hesitation for stakeholders to engage with organizations that don’t have a recognizable brand. Do altruistic penny-pinching and effective branding need to be at odds? The answer is no. In fact, with the right approach, these two seemingly opposing forces can work in tandem.

It’s a necessity for nonprofits to build and maintain strong brands, but they simply don’t have the luxury of being celebrated for for lavish campaign spending enjoyed by for-profits. To qualify as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit an organization must “use its surplus revenues to further achieve its purpose or mission.” Without this mission-critical messaging, even altruistic organizations risk appearing commercially driven.

Conspicuous Branding: NYC Nonprofit Hospitals

Even the appearance of extravagance can cause problems. A few years ago, several New York City hospitals famously missed the memo that if a nonprofit’s messages feel too commercial they will not be trusted. It’s hard for NYC nonprofit hospitals to justify dumping 80 million dollars blanketing the city in pricey ads as altruism. NYU Langone’s spendy “Made For New York” ad campaign (via agency Munn Rabôt) launched in 2015 and placed local Superbowl ads in 2018. The university hospital had to clarify that student tuition was not used to fund the placement.  The hospital has gone through many mergers and acquisitions over recent years, and recently rebranded under NYU Langone Health.

This follows a trend of putting “health” front and center, in lieu of religious affiliations, or terms like “medical” and “corporation.” It remains to be seen whether this shift stops at the name or will have a positive impact on the patient experience as well. J. Walter Thompson’s pricey rebranding of North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System to Northwell Health has substance behind it, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering at least combined sentimentality with some science, both spending millions to get these messages across. Conversely, something about New York Presbyterian’s testimonial-driven campaign’s admission that “some case studies are identified via hospital PR” diminishes the emotional punch and authenticity of its tagline, “Amazing things are happening here.” The hospital seems to have incorporated some of this feedback in a continued campaign during the 2018 Winter Olympics, highlighting the diversity of patients it serves.

For-Profits Thinking Like Nonprofits: Patagonia, Gucci, Nike

If nonprofit branding can sometimes go awry or go to extremes to mimic for-profit campaigns, can the opposite also be true? Patagonia’s unorthodox approach to marketing proves it can. The company has long been dedicated to the environment, but rather than being a buzzword or a handy stance to roll out when it comes time to campaign, it is imbued in everything the company does. In 2011, the company famously asked consumers not to buy its jackets on Black Friday, and followed it 5 years later by announcing that 100% of Black Friday sales would be donated.  In 2013, the company declared advertising to be its “dead last” priority. In 2016, the company turned its mission outward in a no-frills brand campaign based entirely on its reason for being—its underlying mission. And in 2017, when the company aired its first-ever tv commercial, the highlighted product was not anything Patagonia made, but the need to protect America’s public lands.

The goal for nonprofit branding should never be simply to drive more donations or to increase one’s public profile. People have very low forgiveness for nonprofits that do this (see the “pink-washing" plaguing Susan G. Komen and how another myopic leadership decision to pull support for Planned Parenthood resulted in greater support for the latter instead. Instead, the sole aim of great nonprofit branding should be to propel the cause forward and galvanize social change. In doing so, the identifying elements of your brand (logo, visuals, story, tone) become inextricably tied to your cause. Gucci did just that with its nonprofit effort Chime for Change as did Nike with The Girl Effect. By building a cause around and apart from their core brand, Gucci and Nike managed to artfully balance authentic altruism and effective branding.

Nonprofits Branding With Purpose: Charity Water, Doctors Without Borders, International Rescue Committee

Charity Water has set a high-bar for nonprofit branding. Their branding stands apart because it effectively communicates a problem the organization is trying to solve (universal access to clean water), the solution (well drilling and water purification systems), and your potential role in effecting that change (by donating or starting your own campaign). Sure, a key goal of Charity Water’s branding is to increase visibility and drive donations, but it is not the main goal. The primary goal is to get as many people clean water as possible by any means necessary. By owning that goal, and making that single-minded purpose the heart of its brand story, the organization has effectively solved the paradox facing nonprofit branding. Instead of running glossy ads or funneling donations into expensive campaigns, Charity Water partners with like-minded organizations, and simply communicates its progress and aims while building a powerful brand in the process.

Another great example is Doctors Without Borders (a.k.a. Médecins Sans Frontières), which not only keeps its mission front and center, but even invites the public to consider moral questions about who should receive medical care in a war zone (answer: everyone, regardless).

International Rescue Committee, headed by the charming and charismatic David Miliband, can’t be accused of failing to stick to its knitting, with the tagline “Donate Now and Rescue Lives,” and has emerged as the go-to good-guy in humanitarian aid after The Red Cross became mired in scandal, and it was revealed the head of Oxfam in Haiti had hosted bacchanalian parties while the island starved. (Doctors Without Borders is now bracing for a similar sex scandal, as is the UN, and public confidence in charities across the board is faltering, making good, credible branding more important than ever.)

Purpose-Driven Branding is Key

A purely purpose-driven strategy can go a long way towards solving the paradox facing nonprofit branding. Make your organization synonymous with your broader purpose, and communicate clearly that your job does not end when you receive a donation–rather it begins. Patagonia, Charity Water, Doctors Without Borders and IRC have both done this well, making their brand story inseparable from their purpose. The balance between effective altruism and powerful branding is achieved when purpose emerges from an organization’s mission, which is its beating heart. Authentic, purpose-driven branding inspires generosity of spirit.



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