Is Your Brand as Good as Your Organization’s Work?

Foundations and nonprofits deserve stronger identities that reflect the true value of their contributions to society.

By Deroy Peraza, Partner at Hyperakt

In the world of nonprofit communications, the brand is not just a logo or a slogan; it's the embodiment of an organization's mission and values. It's the first impression you make and the lasting memory you leave. However, a recent analysis we conducted of 315 medium and large foundations and philanthropies reveals a surprising truth: The nonprofit sector is facing a widespread issue of weak branding. This presents a significant opportunity for organizations to invest in their brand and, in turn, enhance their reach, reputation, and influence.

Illustration by Merit Myers

The Importance of First Impressions

Our study, focused on the clarity and distinctiveness of nonprofit brands—elements that are immediately apparent to an outsider. This approach is crucial because, for most people, a few seconds are all it takes to form a judgment about your organization based on its verbal and visual identity. The findings were eye-opening: Of the 315 nonprofit brands we evaluated, 37% had low scores, 9% had average scores, and 53% scored high. That means that almost half of the brands we looked at are missing opportunities to connect with and engage their audience effectively.

In addition to the brands we evaluated, early data from our Nonprofit Brand Score tool—where nonprofit brand managers can self-evaluate their brand's clarity, resonance, distinctiveness, and influence—has yielded similar results. The average overall score for the first 100 nonprofits who have completed the assessment is just 66 on a 100 point scale. For reference, brands we have designed average 87 on the same scale.

A Quick Reality Check

Before jumping into diagnosing common weaknesses in nonprofit brands, it’s important to pause and acknowledge that the role of a brand is to be an authentic representation of your organization’s behavior. Rebrands signal an important shift or evolution in that behavior.

If your brand is falling short, it’s important to ask yourself why? Is it a matter of it being outdated, suffering from lackluster execution, or misalignment with your organization’s reality—or are the root causes deep enough that they can’t be glossed over with a great verbal and visual identity?

In order to answer these questions, it’s important to have an unvarnished understanding of how people perceive your organization. Whether you agree with it or not, public perception is a truth you need to contend with. If your organization’s reputation is damaged because of how you show up and operate in the world, because of how you do your work, or because of how you treat your people, a beautiful rebrand is not a short cut to solving your perception problem—people will see right through it and probably resent you more for trying to pull the wool over their eyes. You have to actually engage your team to do the work of changing your organization’s behavior before jumping into a rebrand. I won’t lie—this is slow, hard work that requires emotionally intelligent leadership, great listening skills, strategic thinking, and a deep well of patience. It's also essential to your organization's sustainability and potential for impact.

Assuming your organization has had the courage to be introspective about it’s behavior, and is at least on the path to correcting behaviors that might have hurt its public perception, let’s take a look at some common weaknesses in how nonprofit brands present themselves and what they can do about it.

Where Nonprofits are Falling Short

1. Lack of a Standout Verbal Identity

The majority of organizations we assessed did not have a distinctive verbal identity. Their missions and visions often blended into what we term 'Social Good Ipsum' — generic statements like "making an impact" or "helping communities thrive." These phrases are so overused that they lose meaning, making it difficult for potential supporters to understand what the organization actually does or why they should care.

2. Name Overload

Nonprofits have a tendency of using excessively long names in logos, making them hard to remember and cumbersome to use. Many organizations would benefit from adopting more approachable, shortened versions of their names in their logos when appropriate. This shift can make the brand more memorable and relatable.

3. Visual Sameness

Visually, many nonprofits fall into a sea of sameness. The predominant use of neutral colors, such as whites and blues, and a lack of distinct hues contribute to this uniformity. Logos often lack differentiation, ranging from poorly crafted or considered fonts for the organization's name to outdated monogram seals. The use of generic, emotionless photography only exacerbates the issue, failing to connect the organization's unique story or impact with the real people it serves.

4. Over-Designing and Lack of Systems

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some organizations are over-designed. Their branding features a confusing array of patterns, graphics, and colors, leading to visual chaos and diluted brand equity. This often results from multiple individuals designing for the brand without clear guidelines, resulting in a disjointed and ineffective brand presence.

Seizing the Branding Opportunity

This prevalent issue of weak branding is a call to action for nonprofits. Organizations that invest in developing a clear, resonant, and distinctive brand can stand out in a crowded field, attracting more support and making a more significant impact.

Embracing Clear and Emotional Verbal Identity

Nonprofits can begin by reevaluating their verbal identities and getting a real sense for how much they actually resonate with their teams. Ultimately, organizations should move away from generic language and adopt a more emotional, clear, and concise way of communicating their promises and personality. The goal is to instantly convey what makes an organization unique and why it matters.

Distinguishing with Visual Identity

Visually, there's ample room for improvement. Nonprofits can adopt more distinct color palettes, develop unique logos that reflect their essence, and use photography that genuinely represents their people, their work, and their impact. By creating a visual identity that breaks away from the norm, organizations can make a memorable impression.

Consistency and Cohesion in Branding

For those grappling with over-design, the solution lies in establishing and adhering to clear brand guidelines. This ensures consistency and cohesion for the brand’s design system across all platforms and materials, making it more recognizable and trustworthy.

A Golden Opportunity

The findings from our study should serve as a wake-up call for nonprofit communications staff. In a sector where many organizations are struggling with weak branding, there lies a golden opportunity to invest in and strengthen your brand. By focusing on creating a clear, resonant, and distinctive brand, your organization can significantly enhance its profile, reach, and influence, ultimately driving greater impact in the communities you serve. Remember, in the world of social impact, communication is not just an accessory; it is the work. A strong brand isn’t a luxury item, it is fundamental.

Curious about how you’d rate your own organization’s brand? Spend 5 minutes with our Nonprofit Brand Score to find out. If you’d like to bring your team in to get a more in-depth assessment of the current state of your brand and the opportunities you can leverage, let’s talk about our Brand Discovery process.

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