Book Review

Branding for Nonprofits: Developing Identity with Integrity

By on Thursday, February 3, 2011

Branding may be a buzzword flung about in nonprofit board rooms, but many fail to realize that it goes far deeper than a snazzy logo or lockstep devotion to a style guide. Rather, a brand is a living and breathing expression of an organization’s mission, identity and heart.
If this all sounds like mumbo-jumbo to you, don’t worry, because in Branding for Nonprofits: Developing Identity with Integrity (2006, New York: Allworth Press), author DK Holland provides a practical how-to guide with real world nonprofit and corporate examples for busy nonprofit professionals.

Nonprofits may think they can’t afford branding – and they’re wrong. If your organization exists, you are already branded. It may be good, bad, or schizophrenically all over the place, but your organization does have a brand. The question is, what does your current brand today say about your organization?
Holland outlines the four branding markers:

  • Reputation: How well is the brand known by audiences?
  • Esteem: How highly do its audiences rate the brand?
  • Relevance: How much do the brand’s audiences care about what it does or stands for?
  • Differentiation: How different is the brand from others? Are other brands similar?

Rightly, she notes that many nonprofit organizations are so service-oriented that they inadvertently emit a “fuzzy” brand, lacking clarity. If you think you can afford to keep your nonprofit brand unfocused, consider the returns effective branding delivers: better connections with the people you serve and work with, stronger clarity about your organization’s purpose and vision, greater awareness of the organization through pass-along buzz, expansion of the audiences you serve, and laser-like guidance for marketing and program development.

Branding is very much a collaborative process. One of the biggest mis-steps you can take, according to Holland, is to hand your brand over to an outside consultant that you have no dialogue with. This forces your nonprofit into a reactionary role. Securing buy-in and support from top-level decision-makers within your organization is also important, and choosing the right mix of people for the branding team is critical.

Holland goes into the nitty-gritty of creating a design brief to guide the branding process and corralling an organization into a branding strategy. The Alan Guttmacher Institute met with her to discuss their own publications with dissimilar looks, and began the process to reach a consensus about the organization’s brand.

The examples in the book drive home repeatedly that everyone in an organization is responsible for branding, not just the communications staff. The examples range from the American Institute for Graphic Arts and MoMA, to the Literacy Assistance Center and the Sisters of Charity of New York. And if you think branding is only for megalithic nonprofits, consider PUPS, the Fort Greene Park Users and Pets Society. It’s a small volunteer organization with a great brand and website.

She also offers sage advice for evaluating a designer’s portfolio and selecting someone you can work with. Reaching a synergistic sweet spot and consensus on a new look is an art, not a science. And plenty of room for feedback and collaboration needs to be built into the process.

Although it’s a fairly young nonprofit with a dynamic volunteer membership, the Alliance for Nonprofit Governance (ANG), quickly realized that its lackluster acronym doomed it to know-nothing status. They switched the organization’s name to Governance Matters and implemented new identity standards. The strategies used to build board and member buy-in to the new identity are outlined, and absolutely critical for anyone considering such a switcheroo. Appendix D offers the slides used to roll-out the new name to the Governance Matters board.

The last two chapters feel like a departure from the crescendo that’s been building throughout the book, but they offer some helpful information, especially if you still aren’t entirely sold on the value of branding. Chapter 11 gives a sneak peek inside the questions funders ask and how they can be influenced by branding. For the do-gooder purists among us, the last chapter points out that branding is far more than grubby commercialization, but about creating a unity in purpose.

Author DK Holland may have three decades of experience as a creative strategist for major corporate accounts, but she also sports hefty nonprofit credentials. She founded two nonprofit organizations, and worked as a nonprofit executive director for six years. Today she works exclusively with nonprofits and is an editor for Communication Arts magazine.

With plenty of white space left to generous margins, there’s room for readers to jot notes and for the author to feature a few photographs. Some photographs are so small they are difficult to see, and their relevance is at times, questionable. One wonders how a photo of a bunch of graphic designers in a row is truly helpful to someone seeking to understand the branding process, but the book’s photos do let you see some of the real day-to-day people involved in the nuts and bolts of cranking out a nonprofit brand. And thankfully, they all look blessedly ordinary and are not wearing expensive suits.

The appendices for Branding for Nonprofits: Developing Identity with Integrity hold a goldmine of practical help. Unfortunately, the font size in this section is so small that it can be challenging to read some of the style guides featured (particularly Appendix A), but they are worth eyeballing, even if you have to do it up close.

The hip and fun branding guide from Aish dubbed, “Guidelines without the guilt,” overviews the organization’s values and then goes into how these values are applied to colors, page layout, image selection, messaging, and typeface. As an organization seeking to re-connect young Jews with their cultural identity, their minimalist look and subtle cues reach perfectly to their core audience. A wealth of before and after examples demonstrate how the look is applied to postcards, invitations, advertising, and the web.

The bare bones branding document produced by the American Institute of Graphic Artists is front and center for Appendix B. When consulting this section, it’s helpful to refer back to pages 34-36 so you can place the document within its proper context or you might get confused. It may not be the finished product, but getting a sneak peak at the beginning of the process is both rare and infinitely helpful.

Appendix C offers up the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s identity guidelines, which are all of five pages. The guidelines were written to help designers properly apply the organization’s distinctive take on typeface placement. A glossary to branding terms rounds out this useful 195-page resource.

Keep up with DK Holland through her website or twitter feed. I originally wrote this review for Charity Channel in 2008.

Branding for Nonprofits: Developing Identity with Integrity

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