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How to Create Effective Nonprofit Branding & Messaging Architecture

A nonprofit’s branding and messaging are the translation of its strategic plan or operating model into tangible design and content. They’re the foundation upon which all nonprofit communications are built. But how do we translate all the complex ideas like a theory of change and program strategies into brand experiences that engage audiences?

As I noted in an earlier article, maximizing a brand’s potential requires “a strategic framework for thinking about, creating, and managing the different ways the brand is understood and expressed.” This starts with an organization having an understanding of itself and its relationship to the individuals, organizations, and networks that comprise its ecosystem.

Nonprofits typically define and understand themselves through a mission and theory of change, using them as a foundation for organizational strategy. Branding is the way this understanding is reinforced and communicated. It both informs and articulates this foundation by establishing conceptual clarity and creating greater intentionality in the experiences the brand delivers — whether they occur online, in print, or in person.

At Constructive, it’s our mission to bridge this gap between branding theory and practice by aligning an organization’s ideas, actions, and culture with its use of design, messaging, and technology. We help translate concepts and dynamics into a clear narrative and engaging experiences that reinforce a nonprofit’s value. And like much of the work nonprofits do, this process calls for a systems-based approach.

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

In order to create engaging brand experiences, designers, copywriters, and technologists must apply their skills to the difficult job of translating complex issues and an organization’s efforts to address them into something that resonates with a public that, in most cases, has only a passing knowledge of them. To accomplish this, we apply synthetic thinking to unite the conceptual and tangible elements of a nonprofit’s brand to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts — and whose individual parts also function effectively on their own, in any context.

This dynamic is important for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that branding takes many forms. Branding can be experienced holistically (e.g., a website or report), or as individual elements ( a tagline or logo). Understood this way, a systems-based approach is critical to developing a framework that helps all stakeholders more easily and effectively manage a nonprofit’s brand.

So, what goes into this framework, and how do its different parts work together?

The Foundations of Verbal and Visual Branding

Branding provides an organization with two important things: a messaging platform that articulates its organizational/brand strategy and a design system to communicate that strategy visually. Here’s an overview of how we, at Constructive, work to develop them.

Brand Messaging Architecture

To develop strong connective thread that runs from an organization’s mission through to the types of experiences those who interact with the organization are, the key concepts should flow from one to the other, providing answers to the following questions:

Mission: What is the organization’s reason for being?

Vision: What does the world look like when the mission is successfully executed?

Challenges: What are the challenges that stand in the way of getting there?

Theory of Change: How is change possible and how will it happen?

Audiences: Who’s engaged, directly or indirectly, in advancing the mission?

Beliefs & Values: What are the principles that guide the organization and its people while working to advance its mission?

Roles & Functions: What are the key activities in which the organization engages?

Differentiators: What makes the organization qualified to play these roles?

Attributes:  What’s the personality of the brand and what kinds of experiences is it trying to create for different audiences?

Building a nonprofit messaging platform with the answers to these questions empowers us to communicate vital aspects of the brand in ways everyone can easily understand, making it easier to develop compelling brand narratives from multiple vantage points. It provides a reservoir of content that can be drawn on for a broad range of business and marketing communications.

Visual Identity Architecture

Unlike with language, which uses the same element (words) to communicate the ideas behind a brand, visual branding uses multiple different design elements to communicate these ideas and add greater meaning than words alone can create. Most people are familiar with many of these elements (Logo, Typography, Color, Photography, etc), however, their nuances are often less clear to some.

When designing nonprofit branding, firms like Constructive look to balance the functional and emotional attributes that elements of a visual identity system offer the brand. We test and evaluate how effectively they help an organization accomplish its goals by asking countless questions along the way. The answers may be as much about a subjective aesthetic consideration that needs to be rationalized as they may be about measurable, objective criteria that can clearly be evaluated. For example:

Logo Design: Subjectively, how well does the mark embody the attributes or values that have been identified during brand strategy? Objectively, how well will a proposed design retain its clarity and legibility at different sizes in different contexts?

Color: Subjectively, what does a proposed color palette communicate emotionally about the brand? Objectively, does the color palette support the range of functional demands an organization’s content calls for, such as data visualization?

Typography: Subjectively, what does the design of a proposed set of typefaces say about the personality of an organization when communicating its ideas? Objectively, do the typeface families chosen provide the functional support to deliver specific types of content with legibility in all contexts and mediums?

By evaluating all elements within a nonprofit’s visual branding both subjectively and objectively, we’re not only more likely to design branding that is a more accurate reflection of all the intangible ideas and values that it stands for, we’re also much more likely to develop a toolset that is more effective in delivering communications and that makes operations more efficient.

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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