Telling a New Story About Philanthropic Organizations

Philanthropies have been through the wringer, as people question their motives and actions. Branding can help communicate your organization’s new reality.

By Sruthi Sadhujan, Senior Strategy Director at Hyperakt

Philanthropies are peculiar organizations—massively wealthy, notoriously intransparent, risk-averse, slow-moving, and perhaps most important, tax-exempt. And yet, for decades, going back to the age of Rockefeller and his “Gospel of Wealth,” despite all of these challenging or negative attributes, they have occupied a favored place in our collective hearts and minds as irreproachable engines of social good.

Illustration by Merit Myers

But the winds have changed.

Philanthropies have undergone a tumultuous reckoning in the last few years. This has been widely written about (see Edgar Villanueva’s “Decolonizing Wealth,” for starters) so I won’t rehash what others have already articulated. But I do want to reflect on how these sea changes are now influencing the way we brand and tell stories about philanthropies.

Many foundations, at least those worth their salt, have been putting in the hard work of making changes from the inside out, rethinking how they disburse funds, who they provide grants to, what their theory of change is, and beyond. And now, three years into the reckoning, many are ready to tell the story of their evolution.

Telling a New Story Through Branding

Over the last year and a half, we’ve worked with a range of organizations on branding with a greater emphasis on racial equity and justice. Most organizations are ready to talk about the work they’ve done and how they’ve shifted their perspective and their mission. But the question is always “how”. How does an organization say out loud how it has changed while still remaining humble? There’s an art to telling your story without sounding self-aggrandizing. At the end of the day, an organization is only as strong and trusted as the story that its stakeholders and audiences associate with it.

Branding occupies a tricky place between organizational strategy and communications, at times either a leading or a lagging element. For the most part, branding is a lagging element, meaning once the strategy is set, branding distills it into workable communication tools and translates it into a coherent and powerful story for the larger world. Sometimes, branding is a leading element, a process that allows organizations to find greater clarity and opportunity to make the kind of strategic leaps they couldn’t fathom before.

Branding can help distill and package who you’ve become, but it can also help carve out more space to become who you never thought you could be.

So if you’re thinking about how to leverage your brand to tell the story of your evolution, here are some learnings and insights.

1. Articulate your core values.

I don’t know any brand element that inspires more eyerolls than “core values.” Core values are plagued by artifice. Setting aside the challenge of determining what they are, there is the second challenge of articulating them, because how you articulate your core values matters; it affects how the outside world receives them.

Your core values provide a critical anchor for your story. As your audiences learn about your organization’s transformation, their emotions might range from indifference to skepticism. Core values can help counter the negative responses and provide more context into what’s motivating the change.

We lead by example, developing, promoting and sharing great new ideas and programs to further our mission.
We build community through partnerships founded on integrity and trust.

The common approach is to pick three to five words (think leadership, integrity, community, diversity, and innovation) and define them through a perilous combination of ambiguous phrases (“we build community”) and abstract words (“integrity”). The result is a platitude, the exact opposite of what you want your core value to be.

How do you bring core values to life in writing? Let’s say you’ve decided to embrace “long-term thinking” as one of your values. How about this for a non-standard, attention-grabbing, and sincere articulation of what it is and why it matters to your organization?

“Our world moves fast, making it hard to tell what is urgent and what must wait. It can be tempting to focus on immediate wins. But favoring the short-term does a huge disservice to the deep, systemic work that is required to move our cause forward. Reimagining our system isn’t an overnight project—it's a generational one. We keep our eye on the horizon with patience and dedication.”

For starters, use plain language. Don’t try to define an abstract word with more abstract words. And second, give insight into what problem the value is trying to address (i.e. short-term thinking) and why “playing the long game” is critical to the success of your work.

2. Audit your own power.

Today’s blaring calls to defrock institutions of their power come from good intentions. But in our panicked rush to do something (do anything!), storied organizations and foundations need to be discerning in what they disavow and what they embrace.

Power is a medium. It can be used for good or bad. When we work with organizations that are updating their strategy and branding in order to step into their full potential, we analyze how and where they leverage their various forms of power.

The pressure to change is intense, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon all your strengths and assets. What aspects of your power are important and necessary for the larger cause? What aspects of your power are snuffing out or dominating others’ voices and ideas? What are you going to change or let go of (burdensome reporting requirements)? What are you going to embrace (i.e., funding more community-based organizations and leaders)?

We are currently working with a foundation that has a long history of leveraging science and research to tackle social issues. For a few years, they’ve been facing some pointed accusations that data is racist and that only lived experience, collected directly from those involved or impacted, can be a morally acceptable form of information.

Through the framework of a power audit, we were able to unpack the allegation. Data is not an absolute and unalloyed truth. It’s often tainted by the biases of the people who collect it and interpret it. But nonetheless, data, and especially science, make up the foundation of our society. It was too important to jettison. Ultimately, the organization held fast to their commitment to data, but broadened their definition of evidence to include stories, testimonials, and other inputs. The goal of this effort was to make the data more equitable and more reflective of the realities of all people and not just some.

Audit your power carefully to decide what is worth keeping, what needs evolving, and what is actually baggage that has been long overdue for the rubbish heap of history.

3. Determine how you’ll wield your power, and to what end.

The moral reckoning of philanthropies extends far beyond racial justice. It has also provoked deep questions about the social utility of the institutions themselves. What do they have to show for their decades of giving and enjoying tax-exempt status? As Darren Walker, the president of one of the most renowned philanthropies in the U.S., Ford Foundation, has said, “Our extreme challenges remain extremely unsolved.”

In light of this questioning and pressure, more and more foundations are deepening their ways of working by identifying systems-level levers to influence. According to renowned systems thinker and theorist Donella Meadows, systems are made of everything from formal and informal rules, to the flow of information and distribution of power, to the mindsets and paradigms that form the very foundation of our society.

So part of telling the story of your transformation has to be an attempt to articulate your work in systems change. How are you engaging with the full complexity of the systemic nature of your issue? Are you focused on catalyzing new conversations, shifting beliefs, and building coalitions? Are you engaging in advocacy work or narrative change efforts? How does it all fit together? Your brand story should not be complicated, but it should not shy away from grappling with the complexity and multi-dimensional nature of your work.

Working on systems change doesn’t mean you need to solve the whole problem on your own. You are not the hero of this story (see my next point). Get clear about what lane you occupy, what you’re good at, what you do, and most importantly, what you don’t do. Nothing erodes credibility like an organization claiming to do it all.

4. Make those you serve prominent in your story.

For too long, the hidden but real stakeholders of grantmaking have been funders, the board, the legacy individual or family. The priorities were driven by individual preferences rather than true measures of what is working and what is not working. But that’s starting to change. More and more, foundations are decentering the priorities of their inner circles and listening and learning from the needs and ideas of their grantees, their beneficiaries, as well as the partners they work alongside to build a better tomorrow.

As part of this greater effort to shift the spotlight, foundations are also lending their power and influence to amplify the voices of those who are closest to the work. From creating space for diverse thought leaders to lead conversations on their own teams, to offering a more visible platform on their social media, blog, and website to increase the reach of their stories, foundations are recognizing the power of their brand and sharing it to bring otherwise overlooked voices, stories, and ideas to the forefront.

This is an important element of the story of your transformation. Ask yourself, who are the real heroes of this work? How can we facilitate their greatness? And how should they feature in the story of our organization and our work?

Rethink your power through brand

Power is the water we all swim in. It's the environment, the context, the medium, the backdrop, the enabler of all that we do. The task ahead of us is not to eradicate power from the equation, but rather to reframe how we all value and use our power.

As Cyndi Suarez, a widely acclaimed thinker on the nature and role of power, says, “Yes, power is privilege in a system. It is also mastery, clarity of vision, the attractive force of integrity, the ability to see and design for multiplicity, the ability to connect across difference, and the ability to imagine a better world.”

Remaking yourself from the inside out is not an overnight project. It may take years or longer. But once you’ve made headway, once you see the goal, it’s time to think about your organizational brand. Your brand is a compelling way to communicate your renewed sense of integrity, the clarity of your vision and values, the honest complexity of your work, and your ability to work together with your people to build a better tomorrow. The calls to rethink how you use your power are loud and clear. And your brand is a chance for you to respond, learn, and evolve, out loud.

If you’re ready to tell your story, with radical humility and honesty, we’d love to hear from you.

Ready to unlock the potential of your nonprofit's brand?
Reach Out