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  • Dr. Ken Thiessen

Branding and the Nonprofit - Part 1


Core Beneficiary and Competitive Advantage

If I were to mention Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Nike, or Ford, there are images or phrases that would immediately come to your mind. Most likely they would be the brand logo of the slogan associated with each of these companies. Branding is an incredibly powerful force in the world of business. Logos and slogans convey so much more than just the image or the words. They speak to the core fundamentals and symbolize the reputation and the credibility of the company. Companies spend a significant amount of money getting their branding right! The good companies will spend an equally significant amount of money measuring whether or not they are able to deliver on the promise associated with their branding.

When it comes to the world of nonprofits, however, branding doesn’t always capture the same attention and focus from the executive leadership team or the Board of Directors. While organizations like the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army, and United Way have a recognizable brand, as I work with nonprofit organizations, I have found that many nonprofits have not acknowledged the importance and power of having a recognizable brand and then made the financial, emotional, and intellectual investment to create a brand.

So what about your nonprofit organization? What are you doing to develop, promote, and measure your brand reputation? Here’s some things to consider as you work on developing or refining your own brand reputation and brand promises

Who is Your Core Beneficiary?

A key part of identifying your brand is to first of all identify the typical person your nonprofit reaches through the services and programs you offer. The people who access your programs or services are more than a lifeless profile on a piece of paper. They are a real, live human being with a unique story which has shaped and contributed to their current reality. They have a unique identity with specific wants, needs, and fears. As you take the time to reflect on the people you normally intersect with in the delivery of your programs and services, you’ll probably discover similarities that characterize them.

If you’ve never taken the time to engage this kind of an exercise as an executive team, it would be time well spent. Identify a group of individuals who regularly access your programs or services and then do the work of discerning the needs, wants, desires, and fears that are consistent among that group. You’ll be amazed at what you discover about these people. You’ll be astounded by how it transforms the way in which you view and treat them. You’ll be equally amazed at how it can help you streamline and focus the programs and services you deliver as an organization. In the end, it’s a win-win. Your core beneficiaries win and you win as an organization.

The more you can bring your Core Beneficiary to life, the more crisp and focused your Brand Reputation will be! And the more compelling the story you have to share with the volunteers, donors and funding agencies who partner with you!

What’s Your Unique Competitive Advantage?

Once you’ve identified your core beneficiary, it’s important to identify your competitive advantage. In some ways, “competitive” doesn’t seem to fit the vocabulary of nonprofits. A primary reason is that nonprofits are most often driven by an altruistic passion and core purpose.

Rarely is a nonprofit organization the only “player” in the program and service delivery landscape. Almost always there’s another organization offering similar programming or delivering similar services to the same demographic group. So what is it that sets your organization apart from similar organizations? What are the core competencies you possess as an organization that help you excel and deliver extraordinary results in your program and service delivery? Don’t allow a false sense of humility prevent you and your organization from doing the hard, painstaking work of identifying your core competencies and articulating your competitive advantage. It’s a key part of identifying your brand!

The ability to differentiate your organization from other like-minded nonprofits in your geographic area or sphere of influence is a key component of the branding process. The ability to do this serves several purposes. First, it allows you to focus your energy and resources on those areas where you are particularly strong and have proven competencies. Second, it minimizes the duplication of programs and services. It may be that you’re offering a program or service that you’re not particularly strong at but a comparable program or service is available through another agency that is more competent than you are. There’s no need to spend time duplicating it or spending valuable financial and people resources on. Do all you can to affirm and support the other organization! Your time and resources would be better spend engaging a community needs assessment, identifying existing needs that aren’t already being met by another agency. Then consider developing a program or service that meets that need, with the proviso that the delivery of that program or service is aligned with your core purpose, core values, and your Big Hairy Audacious Goal!

If branding is important for companies like Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Nike or Ford, then perhaps it’s something that nonprofits - your nonprofit - should pay attention to! In the next blog article I’m going to focus in on another two components of the branding process - Brand Reputation and Brand Promises.


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