Insights

Are Your People Well Equipped to Talk About Your Nonprofit?

Your leadership team uses visionary language to describe your work; your staff should share that vocabulary, too

By Sruthi Sadhujan, Senior Strategy Director at Hyperakt

In a recent branding project, we surveyed the entire organization on communication challenges. Specifically, we asked, “What do you struggle with the most when communicating with outside audiences.” Amongst all the responses, we stumbled across a response from an individual in the middle layers of the organization.

“I hear our leaders use phrases like, ‘We’re a different kind of funder. We’re onto something new…” but I struggle to authentically use these catchphrases that I know are meaningful to us.”

Brand Altitude

Illustration by Merit Myers

Our work is about elevating nonprofit language from the granular details of what organizations do to why and how they do it. We spend months looking for and aligning on meaningful phrases exactly like these.

You, as a nonprofit leader, are comfortable with the visionary and inspirational language needed to communicate the organization’s mission and impact. Because your vantage point is strategic and big-picture, you get to wrestle with the “first principles” of your work: What’s the nature of the problem we are trying to solve? Why is this important to solve? What makes us different? Contemplating at this higher dimension then gives you lofty, powerful language that can help you forge new partnerships, sign new funders, garner new press, and more.

The rest of the staff are important ambassadors and stewards of the brand, but many of them don’t have the 10,000-foot view of the what, how, and why of the organization. Your mid-level staffers are focused on the tasks at hand — delivering services, grant writing, lobbying, crunching numbers. While they may feel comfortable talking about their particular purview, they struggle to talk about the heart and essence of the work because they don’t have the language or simply don’t feel like the language “belongs” to them.

Whether you are aware of this or not, what are you leaving on the table by monopolizing the most powerful currency you have to trade–your message?

Deepening Your People's Understanding

Your organization doesn’t sell cars or clothing; rather, the ideas and passion of your people comprise your “product.” You’ve heard us say it over and over again–nonprofit brands are built from the inside out. Just as the brand must reflect the people who make up your organization, those same people have to reflect the brand outward.

Language is nothing if it is built on an empty foundation. One of the challenges here is that staff often report that the language doesn’t feel “authentic” to them. Who wants to parrot words that were parachuted in by someone else and that feels distant and removed from their day-to-day work?

Branding is an opportunity to build a team-wide language foundation. Branding asks the big questions–what you do, why you do it, how you do it differently? It cracks open that other dimension that only leaders typically get to inhabit and makes it accessible to a broader set of the team. What does it mean to be a public defender? What is broken about philanthropy and why? Why have we failed to move the needle on the state of public education in the United States? These questions are rousing, provocative, and most importantly, inviting. It invites staff to lean closer into the work, to understand the premise, the assumptions, and the first principles that build the implicit but invisible foundation for all that they do.

Building a Walking, Talking Brand

If you’ve done the first step right, your team is probably enlightened and energized by the chance to step into a higher dimension of thinking. Now the final step–democratizing the language–becomes much easier.

Your brand is as strong as your people and your people are as strong as the language you empower them with.

While it’s more common in the commercial brand space, brand rollouts and training is not yet standard operating procedure in nonprofit branding projects. More typically, those who are charged with executing marketing, communication, and programming tactics are handed a style guide with rules about logo usage, a keyword library, and a selection of approved photos. But that’s not enough.

Top-down messaging works, but in the most minimal sense. You will get by fine this way. But if you really want to animate your staff with your message in a way that feels authentic to them and energizing for your organization, brand rollouts have to be a dialogue.

Your brand is not a treatise from on high. It is a set of guidelines with room for interpretation. There’s immovable stuff at the core, but the outer edges are soft and flexible. That’s where, armed with key concepts, team members can feel free to riff and use their own words. Like having a garment tailored to fit perfectly, the essence of the thing is preserved, shaped to suit the individual.

Involve various stakeholders and ambassadors in the process. Enlist a few key team members who’ve been part of the brand development process as liaisons to explain the path that led to the new brand. Consider a series of sessions where employees can talk about how they might incorporate the brand into their work and role-play conversations so they get comfortable with the language. They might also write their own elevator pitches so they gain facility in talking about the organization in words that feel comfortable and relevant to them.

We'll finish by saying that this is hard work. If it's any consolation, we are going through the same thing ourselves. Over the last few months, we’ve been hammering out a new positioning and brand refresh for ourselves (a classic doctor getting a taste of their own medicine). We often find ourselves wishing it was as easy as dropping a brand guide on a designer’s desk or giving our project managers new language guidelines to change how they talk about the way we work. Old habits die hard. It’s slow and challenging, but we are on our own journey to have a productive dialogue with our own team so that we can all embody our new brand more comfortably and confidently.

We’re always here to help your organization build, nurture, and express a visionary brand. Let’s talk about what you need.

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