A decade ago, the dominant brand paradigm in the nonprofit sector focused on communications. Nonprofit executives believed that increased visibility, favorable positioning in relation to competitors, and recognition among target audiences would translate into fundraising success. Branding was a tool for managing the external perceptions of an organization, a subject for the communications, fundraising, and marketing departments.

In contrast, the emerging paradigm sees brand as having a broader and more strategic role in an organization’s core performance, as well as having an internal role in expressing an organization’s purposes, methods, and values. Increasingly, branding is a matter for the entire nonprofit executive team. At every step in an organization’s strategy and at each juncture in its theory of change, a strong brand is increasingly seen as critical in helping to build operational capacity, galvanize support, and maintain focus on the social mission.

By now it should be clear that we are defining brand quite broadly. A brand is more than a visual identity: the name, logo, and graphic design used by an organization. A brand is a psychological construct held in the minds of all those aware of the branded product, person, organization, or movement. Brand management is the work of managing these psychological associations. In the for-profit world, marketing professionals talk of creating “a total brand experience.”3 In the nonprofit world, executives talk more about their “global identity” and the “what and why” of their organizations. But the point in both cases is to take branding far beyond the logo.

When we asked leading nonprofit practitioners, management scholars, and nonprofit brand consultants what a brand is, the responses were not any different from what those in other sectors might say. Some described brand as an intangible asset, and a promise that conveys who you are, what you do, and why that matters. Others felt that a brand captures the persona of an organization and represents its very soul or essence. Yet others identified brand in terms of not only what is projected but also what is perceived. Last, brand was seen as a source of efficiency because it acts as a time-saving device, providing a shortcut in the decision making of potential investors, customers, clients, and partners.

The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector

Many nonprofits continue to use their brands primarily as a fundraising tool, but a growing number of nonprofits are developing a broader and more strategic approach, managing their brands to create greater social impact and tighter organizational cohesion.

Nonprofit brands are visible everywhere. Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, and World Wildlife Fund are some of the most widely recognized brands in the world, more trusted by the public than the best-known for-profit brands.1 Large nonprofits, such as the American Cancer Society and the American Red Cross, have detailed policies to manage the use of their names and logos, and even small nonprofitsfrequently experiment with putting their names on coffee cups, pens, and T-shirts.

Branding in the nonprofit sector appears to be at an inflection point in its development. Although many nonprofits continue to take a narrow approach to brand management, using it as a tool for fundraising, a growing number are moving beyond that approach to explore the wider, strategic roles that brands can play: driving broad, long-term social goals, while strengthening internal identity, cohesion, and capacity.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, recently appointed Tom Scott as director of global brand and innovation. Oxfam International embarked on a confederation-wide “global identity project.” And GBCHealth was one of several organizations completing a rebranding process. Brand managers in these pioneering organizations were focusing less on revenue generation and more on social impact and organizational cohesion. Indeed, some of the most interesting brand strategies are being developed in endowed, private foundations with no fundraising targets at all.

“We’re catalysts,” says Scott. “Could we have greater impact if we leveraged our brand in different ways? What difference could it make to attach our logo to things to move conversations forward or elevate certain issues? Can we use our brand to elevate other brands?” The questions Scott asks aren’t about raising money. Instead, they are about how to leverage the Gates Foundation brand in the cause of greater public discourse and social impact.

Although the ambitions of nonprofit brand managers are growing, the strategic frameworks and management tools available to them have not kept up. The models and terminology used in the nonprofit sector to understand brand remain those imported from the for-profit sector to boost name recognition and raise revenue.

Nonprofit leaders need new models that allow their brands to contribute to sustaining their social impact, serving their mission, and staying true to their organization’s values and culture. In this article, we describe a conceptual framework designed to help nonprofit organizations do just that. We call this framework the Nonprofit Brand IDEA (in which “IDEA” stands for brand integrity, brand democracy, brand ethics, and brand affinity).

The framework is the result of an 18-month research project we led with colleagues at Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations and collaborators at the Rockefeller Foundation. Building on previous work in the field, we conducted structured interviews with 73 nonprofit executives, communication directors, consultants, and donors in 41 organizations. Then we analyzed these interviews to learn how leaders in the field are thinking about nonprofit brands today and how they see the role of brands evolving.2

The Nonprofit Brand IDEA emerged from the distinctive sources of pride that nonprofit leaders expressed in what they do—pride in the social mission, participatory processes, shared values, and key partnerships—and from the distinctive role that they said brand plays to create greater cohesion inside their organizations. We developed this framework to capture the most striking things we heard in our interviews, but we’ve found that it also gives nonprofit leaders a vocabulary with which to manage in the new brand paradigm. Before we explain the framework in more detail, it is important to be clear about what we mean by brand and how the use of brand is evolving.

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