Branding Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word for Nonprofits

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1328372_57165107Want to create instant tension in a room full of nonprofit professionals?  Just mention the word “branding” and watch the sparks fly!

Branding is a dirty word in some corners of the nonprofit community.  The discomfort isn’t hard to understand. Nonprofits are in the business of doing good for others. Self-promotion is perceived as a frivolity at best and a blatant misuse of resources at worst.  For some, the very notion of promoting their brand is tantamount to an abandonment of the constituents they serve.

Not all nonprofits are brand-phobic.  Corporate foundations, for example, are usually comfortable with branding.  Burnishing the brand is, after all, one of the reasons they exist.  But in my meetings with nonprofits over the years, more than a few have shown visible discomfort when I’ve characterized their organization as a “brand,” let alone tried to talk to them about branding strategy.

They should get over it.

In a powerful TED Talk, “The Way We Talk About Charity Is Dead Wrong,” multi-day charity event pioneer Dan Pallotta makes a persuasive case that nonprofits should spend more, not less, on fundraising and promotion in order to achieve the scale necessary to effect meaningful societal change.  Challenging the notion that charities should maintain low overheads, he compares a professional fundraising organization with 40 percent overhead that nets $71 million for charity to a bake sale with a five percent overhead that only nets $71.  “We’ve all been taught that the bake sale with five percent overhead is morally superior to the professional fundraising enterprise with 40 percent,” Pallotta says, “but we’re missing the most important piece of information, which is, what is the actual size of these pies?”

Which would you rather have to support your cause – the $71 pie or the $71 million?

A full-scale branding effort isn’t appropriate for every nonprofit.  Each organization’s branding investment should be scaled to its mission and size.  But even the smallest nonprofit should at least think about its brand and how they want it to be perceived.

Investing in your brand doesn’t mean you’ve sold out or gone over to the dark side.  It just means you’re serious enough about achieving your mission to build your brand so that likeminded people and institutions can find and support you.

It’s time for nonprofits to give up the guilt and embrace the b-word.

Follow Jim Miller @javmiller


Jim Miller
Author: Jim Miller

Jim Miller is president of Momentum Communications Group.

2 Responses to "Branding Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word for Nonprofits"

  1. John Burke Posted on June 25, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Well said. May I refer to this or re-post in on my blog next fall? (All prior posts are scheduled.) We get 2,000 readers in a good week – but I have just converted to posting primarily in video and can’t really predict the kind of attention we will generate for the article. Nevertheless, it is a cool, useful piece. I once had a college president (I was VP) slam the table and scream “Damnit, Burke – don’t ever use the word marketing in my presence again.”

    That was my introduction to the resistance to real world techniques that some nonprofit leaders harbor. You can see why I respond to your comments above.

  2. Jim Miller Posted on June 25, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    I’m glad this post resonated with you. Feel free to refer to it on your blog and thanks for the comments!

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