Nonprofits and the word “brand”

brand-on-the-boardItchy. Twitching. More than slightly uneasy.

That seems to be how leaders and their teams at some nonprofits still react to the word “brand.” Reacting to the questions “are we really aligned internally and externally?” or  “what do our members think about our brand?”

For some, the default is to think about logos and taglines. These are important expressions of your brand, but do not a brand make. A brand is what the world sees when it looks at, interacts with, touches your organization; its value is often expressed in words of the heart rather than of the head. “They’re smart and I trust them as a leader on the environment” rather than “they produce lots of in-depth reports on land use.”

Thirty years ago, a nonprofit might not have had to answer these questions. Today, managing your brand is not optional. There is just too much. Too much information, too many channels, too many microphones, too many visuals and messages and stories.

So your questions should run deeper than the logo: What position do we hold in the marketplace of ideas? Can we name our core beliefs about what we do? When we are not in the room, what do people say about us? What is our unique role in the world?

Just recently someone from the three-year-old organization with which we were meeting asked one of the best organizational positioning questions I’ve heard: “We are seen as conveners right now, which is the right current positioning. At some point, we’ll probably want to shift to being seen as experts as our field matures. How can we do that strategically?”

This is an organization that is thinking through the lens of their audience — the people who can move the needle on their subject — and understanding how those audiences think about issues. And if they keep asking good questions like that, it’s an organization that will end up with a solid strategy for focus, growth and impact.

What’s the takeaway from this? Simple: The next time you think about organizational planning — at almost any level — make sure there is a question in there about how the plan you are undertaking fits with your brand. And if you can’t figure out what your brand is, keep bouncing the question up higher and higher until you get to a place where someone can tackle that larger question: “What is our organizational brand?”

And here’s hoping they can do so without twitching.