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Engage From the Inside! Using Internal Branding to Strengthen Your Nonprofits

Imagine you work at a nonprofit or a foundation that. It might be a global philanthropy, a national think tank or research institute, or a community-based organization. It has multiple program team or departments focused on different issues or geographic areas of operation. There may be different offices catering to the needs of different communities. It might be an affiliate that’s part of a larger network of nonprofits.

While there is a strong sense of what the mission is, there are still disconnects. Silos and knowledge gaps are creating confusion and negatively affecting results.  You just completed a five-year strategic plan review that means significant changes for how you execute your mission and people are unsure how it affects their role. And, as you’ve added new people to the team, staff have very different ways of talking about the organization’s work, down to their choice of words to describe the same thing.

The result is fragmentation that’s making people inside the organization less effective and is confusing lots of people on the outside. Now people are talking about the need to clarify your organization’s identity. It’s time to create the clarity that everyone needs to be aligned in purpose, be clear about strategy and goals, and know how to effectively represent the organization’s values every day.

In short, your nonprofit needs brand clarity.

EBB (External Branding Bias) Syndrome

So, what comes to mind when you talk about branding? For many people, it’s external things like messaging, design, and experiences. Of course, it is, in part, these things. How a brand is projected and experienced is essential to engaging people to support a nonprofit’s mission and to connect people who can benefit from it. External branding is essential to nonprofits cultivate their reputation and build relationships with people. And every experience a nonprofit creates with its brand, online and in person, contributes to how well people understand it and how much they trust it.

Nonprofits often have a bias towards external branding. One reason is that nonprofits direct so much of their energy to partnering with and serving others. In addition, branding was historically viewed in the nonprofit sector a tool for communications and fundraising, as opposed to a strategic asset for mission implementation. Nonprofits also can be understandably reluctant (or not allowed) to spend resources on themselves that could go directly to programs or to drive revenue.

But, while, as  the saying goes, “your brand isn’t what you say you are, it’s what they say you are,” brands are built from the inside-out. So while it’s essential to use external branding to engage audiences outside of the organization, 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 nonprofit’s ability to make a difference if the people working on the mission aren’t fully aligned with the ideas that the organization stands for—and cohesive in how they live these ideas? And how can a nonprofit expect its people to live up to its lofty ambitions and do hard things in service of them if they are unclear and not fully bought into the brand idea?

Aligning Aspirations, Operations & Communications

A strong brand is important to every organization’s success. It’s particularly important for nonprofits for many reasons. Nonprofit work is heavily values-driven, and people have different interpretations of what any particular value means to them. The work is complex, requires context, and can be difficult explain—especially if it involves solving systemic issues and systems themselves.  Impact that often follows a long arc of change can be more difficult to measure (and achieve) than the results that businesses work towards in the for-profit world. Funding opportunities (and requirements) can lead to mission creep that steals focus—the very thing that a strong brand provides.

An effective branding process provides nonprofits with the clarity and buy-in that leads to a strong sense of self, organizational alignment, and thee ability for staff  to authentically “live the brand” at every level, from strategic planning to daily interactions. It’s a process that takes time and commitment, and it’s about much more than what your brand looks and sounds like. Yes, building a brand means developing positioning and messaging, strategically designing a visual identity, and then expressing them through communications. But the ultimate goal of strategic brand development is much bigger than just a new logo and website with updated messaging. Done right, brand strategy and branding offer nonprofits powerful tools to increase their cohesion, capacity, and impact.

When done thoughtfully and thoroughly, brand work has incredible power to transform an organization, both on the inside and outside. Even better, it aligns how the brand is understood and acted on inside the organization with how the brand is projected and experienced by others outside the organization. It creates the authenticity and integrity all great organizations need to thrive—especially purpose-led ones, where trust is paramount.

When Constructive’s team is partnering with a nonprofit on brand strategy work, our aim is to deliver the greatest possible value through the process by both strengthening and connecting three pillars of how nonprofits execute put their mission into action. The idea is to provide partners with the insights and tools they need to connect their aspirations, operations, and communications. Here’s what it looks like:

Aspirations: Every nonprofit is driven by a mission. This mission, though, is just a call-to-action for something that’s much, much bigger because it’s deeply felt by different people in different ways. Aspirations are the true fuel that drives an engine of impact. Aspirations are deeply held values that guide how we would like the world to be and how we would like to be seen. They are also the concrete, tangible outcomes of a mission—the vision of what change looks like. A nonprofit brand strategy needs to do more than just create clarity on the mission—it must also give voice to the aspirations of everyone helping to advance it.

Operations: A nonprofit’s structure and processes are the how the organization designs itself to execute its strategic plan. Countless choices determine how effective these things will be in advancing the mission. Brand strategy work that go deeper than surface-level definitions of “brand personality” creates value propositions for the roles a nonprofit performs. It connects “the how” of change strategies to the value that a nonprofit’s expertise and work streams create in its impact ecosystem. And the more clear everyone within a nonprofit is about what the brand stands for and how it puts these ideas into action, the better decision making is about the structures and processes am organization designs to advance its mission.

Communications: Communications both tell a brand’s story and help nonprofits share the value they have to offer—whether that’s by making information and resources available through a website or engaging communities in campaigns. Most nonprofit is extremely familiar with these roles for communications and they invest in them to engage audiences. The more aligned these external communications are with the ideas that a brand stands for, the more clearly an organization can express its purpose. And, looking inward, when the same care, attention, and creativity are applied to internal communications, nonprofits bring the brand to life with the people who show up every day to put the mission into motion.

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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