Branding for Non-Profits: Achieving Greater Impact Through a Clearly Defined Brand Purpose

By Kim Osborn

Contributor: Sharon Ben-Dov

During recent natural disasters such as hurricanes Harvey and Irma, millions of dollars were donated by citizens and businesses eager to help victims. But how many donations were made just by clicking a link on Facebook, without a true understanding of what these organizations stand for and what they do? How do donors know with confidence which organizations to support with their time or financial resources? Especially in more urgent situations, most people don’t have the time or energy to do a full assessment of which possible non-profit to support. They just know they want to help.


For donors and others outside the nonprofit, there’s much to consider. Today there are countless non-profit organizations, supporting an array of causes. And in this online era, it’s easier than ever to find and contribute to them. It’s also becoming somewhat easier to research nonprofits. There are several reliable sources, such as Charity Navigator, which objectively rank charities on a number of measures. They can help donors narrow down their options, but such rating organizations tend to focus almost purely on numbers and functional attributes, without showing how charities fulfill their core purpose. And even though non-profits pour tremendous energy and resources into positioning themselves, it still is not so easy to determine how they use funds, time and other forms of support to create impact in a way that directly aligns to their stated purpose.


For the nonprofits themselves, there is also a range of pressures and opportunities. Smaller or newer ones may be grappling to gain brand recognition and begin to tell their story, while an established non-profit may be focused on evolving the purpose of their brand in order to stay relevant with younger generations or how to best adapt to economic shifts or natural/man-caused disasters.


This all highlights why branding in the non-profit sector is more critical than ever – as important as it is in the for-profit sector if not more so. Clear, contemporary and effective branding is essential to non-profits in many ways, such as these:

  • Builds credibility and trust – especially crucial when asking audiences to give of their financial resources and time
  • Clarifies your organization’s purpose – articulates why you exist, where you’re going, what you do and how you differ from other nonprofits
  • Creates rigor for the organization – guides decision making and creates internal cohesion (incredibly important for non-profit organizations with limited budgets)


But today, the reality is that many non-profits use their marketing efforts primarily for fundraising, focusing on developing external communications to drive aid into the organization. But in order to successfully engage the ecosystem of employees, donors, and the community at large, organizations must articulate a clear and defined purpose that connects with people’s hearts and minds far before asking them to invest in your cause. Their understanding of your brand must be human before it becomes transactional.


What is Purpose? An established reason for being that gives employees and customers a reason to believe in and belong to a brand.

The brand’s purpose is central to inspiring employees and volunteers, fostering organizational discipline and unity, and in moving donors and other stakeholders. If articulated well, it guides the entire ecosystem, not only persuading donors at the point of transaction but also providing a clear framework for the decisions you make and the experiences you provide for your various audiences.


How to make your brand purpose more evident


Non-profit brands should focus on human-centered storytelling that taps into an emotional connection with audiences. Non-profits should readily and consistently illustrate how the organization is driving towards a purpose – bringing those stories to the surface for your audiences in every communication and touchpoint. Remember that you have to give value to get value – be respectful of the audiences’ time and resources, and clearly, concisely explain the value exchange. The donor experience that non-profits create by doing this has great impact on the charity they decide to support.


Through more strategic, purpose-driven branding, a non-profit organization can position itself as a clear leader in making real impact for their cause and can better engage with audiences that are aligned with its purpose—ultimately creating a better, longer-lasting relationship with the donor, the organization and the community or cause it serves.