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Strengthening Nonprofit Identity and Culture With Internal Branding

I like to define branding as “the visual, verbal, and experiential expression of who you are, what you do, and why it matters.” When you think of the word branding, one of the first things that may come to mind is how messaging and design project what a nonprofit stands for to its external audiences. Of course, a big part of having a strong nonprofit brand depends on how effective these external expressions are. The image that each person has in their mind of a nonprofit—their reputation—is largely made up by the totality of language, design, and experiences that connects people to it. However, as the saying goes—and as I discussed in a previous article on internal branding—it’s what’s on the inside that counts. That’s because a nonprofit’s brand ultimately represents the organization and its people. Brands are created from the inside-out and, if a nonprofit brand is to be authentic, then what’s expressed and experienced on the outside must be closely aligned with what’s understood and embodied by everyone on the inside.

Nonprofits who want to strengthen their brand strategy and branding may typically focus on things like positioning, messaging, and visual identity. And those who want to maximize the value of their brand in driving social impact look beyond what’s shared with the outside world. Or better said, they turn their gaze inward, leveraging branding as an asset to strengthen organizational cohesion and capacity—using it to align people with a nonprofit’s mission, vision, and values, and to cultivate a strong, shared identity and culture. They weave their brand into things like organizational culture, operations, and HR. And for nonprofits engaged in strategic planning work, internal branding shines in its ability to help close the gap between leadership’s vision for change and gaining the traction among all staff needed to get staff aligned with the ideas and concepts behind the strategy.

Of course, going from brand deliverables like a positioning and messaging platform or visual identity to changing culture takes commitment and hard work. For some, it may require reframing what branding is to move past limiting ideas of “words and pictures.” Because, by committing to and being purposeful about how staff understand and experience the brand, nonprofit leaders can use internal branding to translate mission, vision, and values into something tangible and exciting—something that “lives and breathes” for staff and stakeholders alike. Branding then becomes a springboard for strategically and creatively weaving a nonprofit’s mission, vision, and values into staff’s everyday life.

So, if you’re working on strategic nonprofit branding and are considering whether going further than developing the positioning, messaging, and visual identity design to add an internal branding initiative, what will success look like? Here are five benefits of internal branding for nonprofits that highlight its value.

1. Internal Branding Improves Mission Focus.

Any nonprofit looking to create significant impact needs to start with a focused mission. Strategic planning and brand strategy are the primary ways to create that focus. Internal branding acts like a catalyst that translates this work into action by making it more accessible and  tangible to a nonprofit’s staff. Through strategic communications, dense brand strategy documents that most people have little time for are turned into designed experiences that engage staff with your core brand ideas—which, in turn, are then projected out to everyone they interact with.

Think of internal branding as a platform that enables your people to embody the core ideas driving your brand and the specific ways in which you deliver value, both to your different audiences and the world at large. Just make sure your internal branding is consistent with the expectations and experiences created by your external branding.

2. Internal Branding Deepens Employees’ Connection to the Organization.

Work is a big part of who we are and how we see ourselves — especially for people in the social impact sector. By weaving the ideas an organization stands for into the employee experience, you can actually deepen the work-life connection — and make staff feel more connected to the values, attitudes, and beliefs your organizations stands for.

The platform for cultivating this connection is a brand strategy that has been developed through an inclusive process. This helps ensure that your brand has buy-in from staff and that they will be more willing to embrace it. It’s also the best way to turn static documents into meaningful brand experiences. By being thoughtful and creative about how you integrate core ideas into your organizational culture, your brand becomes a deeper part of that culture — and something staff are empowered (and will want) to contribute to.

3. Internal Branding Breaks Down Organizational Silos.

Silos are damaging in any organization, but particularly in nonprofits, where partnerships and collaboration are critical to success. When people don’t understand what their colleagues do or how their work fits together, initiatives tend to become disjointed and less effective. In the worst-case scenario, distrust and resentment set in.

Internal branding — both the process of developing it and the results it can produce — is an effective way to “un-silo.” The key is to articulate how change happens — both in terms of your organization’s operations and its aspirations. Clarifying the different roles your organization plays in its ecosystem helps staff contextualize their contributions to the work and makes clear how everyone’s efforts work together to advance the mission.

4. Internal Branding Improves Hiring and Retention.

For any nonprofit, finding the right people — people who contribute to the desired mix of skills, values, and personalities — is a never-ending challenge. Of course, people who feel passionate about an organization’s work and are happy in their roles are more likely to be, and stay, committed to the organization — and to share that enthusiasm with others. This creates a magnetic force that keeps teams together for longer, increasing continuity, cohesion, and performance.

Also known as “employer branding,” internal branding helps hiring and retention by reinforcing your brand value among the people most likely to feel passionate about it: your staff. And when your organization’s core values are woven into its culture in a way that makes “living the brand” second nature, it becomes much easier to identify and attract people who will fit right in — and stay with you longer.

5. Internal Branding Strengthens Organizational Leadership.

Everyone knows that strong organizations need strong leaders to succeed. But to succeed, leaders need a strong brand from and through which they can draw inspiration and channel their efforts. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two that, when embraced and approached thoughtfully, is mutually reinforcing.

As noted above, it’s essential you develop your brand from the bottom-up through an inclusive process. It’s equally important that leadership proactively drive that brand-building effort. Articulating and helping to build a brand that your people believe in will earn you the trust and confidence of your staff, not to mention valuable political capital. By being visibly engaged in the process (and reinforcing it), you signal to staff that the organization’s brand is a priority, that living it is everyone’s responsibility, and that you applaud and support their commitment to being good brand stewards.

Adding it All Up

These five benefits are, of course, only some of what makes internal branding so valuable for nonprofits. Achieving the results, however, requires a significant, ongoing commitment to make brand building a core part of a nonprofit’s strategy. In a future article, I’ll go into the keys to an effective internal branding process that generates traction.

About the Author

Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz

Matt partners with Constructive’s clients and teams to make sure that we stay focused on what matters, and that both our partnerships and the work we produce meets our shared expectations and the highest standards. With 27 years of experience as a designer, brand strategist, and writer for the social impact sector, Matt helps Constructive’s teams create processes and practices that create brand value for nonprofits and social impact businesses—elevating how mission and purpose are translated into brand-aligned strategy, messaging, and designed experiences.

Matt contributes to the field of nonprofit design, serving on the Leadership Team for the NY chapter of The Communications Network, writing, speaking, mentoring, and conducting workshops. His work has been recognized for excellence by numerous organizations such as The Webbys, Communication Arts, Print Magazine, The Case Awards, Graphic Design USA, The W3 Awards, The Communicator Awards, and others. Matt earned his BA from Sarah Lawrence College in Writing & Visual Studies, and then conducted post-graduate design studies at the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons.

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