Branding and Design for NonProfits

What are the unique conditions within the nonprofit sector that enable great communications work to happen? How does your message about making the world a better place rise above the chorus singing a similarly great song?
As a brand identity firm in San Francisco, we’ve worked with non-profits, for-profits, startups, and established businesses, for nearly thirty years. We’ve learned a thing or two in that time especially how sectors and needs differ.

If you are trying to engage people in your mission, donate money to your cause, or just get people on board, we recommend you work with a firm or agency that operates with the most expanded definition of design where its thoughtful application has influence over human activities. Design is a secret weapon when used strategically. What you want is a partner that helps you translate your story, not just make things pretty.

We hold a special place on the mantle for our mission-driven, nonprofit clients but we have specifically not specialized in an industry or field so that we can bring freshness to the work. We learn about our clients so we can teach others. In our line of work, we are charged with bringing topics or offerings from masters of a given topic to “the man on the street”. Financial management, neuroscience, poverty, death, often tough and complicated topics for someone with mastery to distill to an audience who is new and needs just the basics. It is much easier to learn from people who have only just learned themselves. Learning and translating stories that can be challenging, working around topics that require subtlety and warrant being executed well is the heart of branding and brand storytelling.

We have been involved with a zillion kinds of clients (give or take a 100) in many industries and have been a part of major successes but also failures. What we walk away with is the ability to see patterns. Nonprofits present very particular dynamics and we are in a position to report on what separates those who can get communications work to deliver maximum impact from those who don’t. After years of working with so many types of businesses and so many different dynamics, we are in a position to describe the conditions that make for work that delivers impactful results.

First, let’s acknowledge the differences:

Where the for-profit is trying to achieve profitable growth by building brand awareness in such a way that it creates a surplus of cash that moves into the shareholder’s pockets or is reinvested back into growth, our job is to make a connection between a target audience and a product or service or both.

The nonprofit is trying to advance its mission by raising money, through donations and grants, and then deploying resources to create the greatest impact. It’s about starting where the donors stand (figuratively), bringing their attention to something that needs them and their support. They need storytelling done so well that an audience is moved to give money. They can feel good that they are a part of a solution and a community. It’s emotional.

Other unique factors in the nonprofit sector are:
– You may have high net worth individuals in leadership whether it is of
the organization or simply an event and you may not come from the
same demographic or speak the same language as those leaders or the
audiences you are trying to appeal to.

  • The donor chairing your event wants to have a lovely experience in the design process but you want them to not see any sausage being made, or paid for.

Nonprofits, for all of their high ideals and great missions, usually navigate a stronger set of subtle sensitivities. You want to work with a firm that can be responsive to those unique challenges.

There’s a lot of overlap in both sectors of course. In both, we need to determine why someone would want to fork over the money, or time or care in the first place and then create communications, messaging, or a captivating or engaging campaign that delivers on that why. Our favorite behavioral psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, “The exchange of goods and services makes sense when you consider that people spend money on things that they believe will make them happy.”

Regardless of whether you are a nonprofit or not, you want to feel confident that you have made the right decision in hiring a design firm, one that is taking to heart your goal and listening. If you are a nonprofit, your budgets are smaller because you want more money to go towards the mission. There is a perception tightrope to walk where it should not look like a lot of money was spent on design or production of your communications. The irony is that this is subtle and time-consuming and things that look “cheap” can in fact be expensive. Things that are expensive can look cheap. In the end, proper spending on thoughtful communications translates into donations raised but nobody wants to be flaunting fancy for fancy’s sake.

As with many things, leadership matters. We’ve seen it go many ways.  Sometimes the leader of an organization is quite involved in making the big decisions. Sometimes, not involved at all having handed the decisions to someone else. Or the most problematic, not planning to be involved in the process yet still want to retain the ultimate authority to make the decisions. A design process is filled with layered conversations. If you expected to bring people in who’ve missed the foundational decisions, it is often setting the project up to go back to “Go” and impact your budget. It’s often like starting a project over when new players jump onto the process midway. The meetings and design reviews along the way may feel time-consuming but keeping everyone together is more efficient in the end.

The forcing mechanism in the nonprofit is typically around an event or campaign or program that will evolve in real-time. It will include a shifting program, offering an unimaginable number of rounds of design as the event does adding and scaling of names and logos, decisions that may change once you see them. People are generally optimistic that in this part, conveying all of the tiny bits will happen magically. It doesn’t. Cultivate realism design is a process like many things. Evolution and changes are part of the natural landscape and should be expected.

Looking back, the most successful engagements—by that we mean the ones where the returns on the investment were exceptionally high resulting in a strong ongoing client/firm partnership— are the ones where we were entrusted to do our job.

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