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Engage From the Inside! How Internal Branding Strengthens Nonprofits

Imagine you work at a nonprofit or a foundation. It might be a national research institute or a local community development organization. It has several departments focused on different issues or areas of operation. There may be different offices catering to the needs of different communities. It might even be an affiliate that’s part of a larger network of nonprofits. Whatever the situation, each day everyone comes to work and works hard to help advance the mission. And while there is a strong sense of what you’re all working towards, there are disconnects. Silos and knowledge gaps are creating confusion, holding people back, and negatively affecting results. New funding streams and opportunities have led to mission creep. You’ve grown, added lots of new faces, and your strategic plan now needs revisiting. Staff have very different ways of talking about the organization’s work.

The result is fragmentation that’s making people inside the organization less effective and is confusing lots of people on the outside. So…leadership decides it’s time to address the problem by developing their nonprofit’s brand to create the clarity needed to and get everyone on the same page.

Falling Short of Our Goals

Branding is important to the success of any organization, but it’s particularly important for those in the nonprofit sector. That’s because social impact work is complex and often abstract. Results can be more difficult to measure (and achieve) than in the for-profit world. The allure of new opportunities (and the funding that comes with them) means mission creep is always a concern.

Branding offers a way forward: a process that, when done well, aligns a nonprofit’s aspirations, operations, and communications to create transform the organization. The reality, however, can fall short of achieving the level of change. Instead of creating the strategic focus and clarity in people that leadership had hoped for, the process results mostly in carefully crafted positioning and messaging and perhaps a visual identity. Both important things! But…the ultimate goal of strategic brand development should be more than just a new logo and improved communications materials. The real goal should be to dramatically increase an organization’s ability to lead by increasing its cohesion, capacity, and impact.

So what are the roadblocks to developing a brand that significantly improves your organization’s capacity to lead on the issues it cares about most?

EBB (External Branding Bias) Syndrome

What comes to mind when we talk about branding? For most people, it’s external things like reputation, messaging, design, and experiences. That makes sense. How a brand is both projected and experienced is essential to engaging the people outside an organization who benefit from and support its work. External branding is an important way that nonprofits manage their relationships with people. And every external brand experience, online and on land, contributes to increasing (or reducing) trust in, support for, and action on behalf of an organization.

Nonprofits often have a particularly strong bias towards external branding. Perhaps it’s because nonprofits direct so much of their energy to collaborating with and serving others. In addition, until about a decade ago, branding was mostly viewed in the nonprofit sector as something that only applied to communications and fundraising. Most nonprofits are also understandably reluctant to spend resources on themselves that could go directly to programs and other external activities.

Brands are created from the inside-out, so while it’s essential to use strategy to drive your external branding, using it to focus the mission and cultivate the right kind of internal behavior, actions, and culture matters even more. After all, how can we expect people on the outside to believe in an organization’s ability to make a difference if its own people don’t have (and exude!) the same kind of clarity and conviction?

It’s What’s Inside That Matters

We tell our children not to judge others by how they look. But we’re social and visual beings, and appearances do matter. Brands use design and messaging to turn what’s on the inside (ideas, intentions, and abilities) into something tangible that others can experience (communications and interactions). The sum of those experiences is what people think of us. Assets like brand architecture, positioning platforms, and design systems are great for helping organizations influence the appearance of their brand and create meaningful experiences. But as we tell our kids, it’s what inside that really matters.

When it comes to rebranding a nonprofit organization, in my experience leadership usually embraces this value, but only to a degree. And that’s understandable — it’s hard to get too involved when there are more pressing concerns to worry about. There’s also the reality that legacy perceptions of branding as a tool for communications and development, rather than a strategic asset for mission implementation, persist. The result often is a surface-level approach to brand building that leaves a lot of value on the table.

Of course, even that level of branding produces insights that can help nonprofits create more effective communications. Unfortunately, too often the work fails to go beyond the surface. Strategy stays locked-up in documents that gather dust on a shelf, momentum is lost, and the work never becomes the broader catalyst for greater impact that it was intended to be.

Nonprofits that want to use their brand to increase their impact need to design it into their organizations, not just their communications. That’s how you increase a nonprofit’s perceived and actual value. And the key is a brand development process that focuses and aligns your aspirations, operations, and communications — one that improves the organization’s capacity for strategic thinking, more effectively engages stakeholders both inside and outside the organization, and leads to greater impact.

Understood this way, it’s easy to see how important an internal focus on branding is to a nonprofit’s ability to achieve the impact it seeks. The next question then is, what are the benefits of internal branding?

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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