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Increasing nonprofit brand relevance in a socially distant world.

This is the first article in a two-part series.

The scale of systemic problems that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exploited is staggering and unprecedented. America’s federal government has failed to marshal and coordinate the necessary resources and hundreds of thousands of nonprofits have, once again, stepped in to meet the challenge. Faced with serious social needs across so many different sectors of society, 24/7 pandemic coverage on every channel, and the fatigue that’s now setting in, many nonprofits are wondering how they can attract attention and draw the support they need during this crisis? Adding to this challenge is that in a time of social distancing, things like community-based events and providing direct service are needed more than ever but are harder than ever to do. It’s a perfect storm that can make it very hard for nonprofits to deliver on their missions and demonstrate why they are so relevant during this crisis. 

But, there’s a silver lining in all of this. In times of crisis, people reassess what really matters to them. We rethink and reorder our priorities. One thing that usually gets renewed attention during a crisis is how we feel about the nonprofits we support and are a part of—whether that’s our local shelter or a global health organization. Another positive development is that in times of crisis new heroes emerge. And right now, people are finding their heroes on the frontlines helping people in need and behind-the-scenes reforming the policies and systems that contributed to this crisis. Speaking of systems, a pandemic is also pretty clarifying when it comes to understanding how interconnected our social and economic systems are and deciding what we want to make them properly function for us. 

This intersection of American values, social systems, and service is exactly where nonprofits thrive. But to thrive, nonprofits need support. And when the need is so great, they need even more support, whether that’s people’s time, donations, or energy. This is the connected opportunity and challenge for nonprofit brands that the coronavirus crisis has created. People are rethinking, reassessing, and coming to grips with what this all means while living in isolation with great pain and anxiety. There’s an urgent need for action, both to meet immediate needs and solve serious long-term problems. I’d also like to think that all of our shelter-in-place, pent-up energy and anger means that people are highly motivated to change the course in which we are headed as a nation—tilting the nation towards the values that many of America’s best nonprofits have always embodied.

So, how can nonprofits rise to the moment and attract support during the coronavirus pandemic? How can they continue to do their important work while America is practicing social distancing? And, with approximately 1.6 million nonprofits in America, what lessons can the coronavirus pandemic teach us about what it means for a nonprofit’s brand to remain relevant—both to those who support it and to those it supports?

Strong Nonprofit Brands Always Remain Relevant

“Strong brand” may feel vague or like a communications buzzword. So, what is it? After years of describing what it means to have a strong brand in different ways, I’ve come down to this simple description: a brand’s strength is determined by how relevant it is. Because for anyone to care about something, it has to be relevant to them. What do I care about? What do I value? Which nonprofits best embody these things? Which ones offer me the best opportunities to live my values through a relationship with them, whether I’m a donor, volunteer, or strategic partner? For a nonprofit to be relevant, the answers to these questions must, at a minimum, make me support the mission, feel aligned on values, and believe the organization delivers the impact I’m hoping for.

To answer these kinds of questions and navigate choices in a world filled with them, humans created brands. Brands are a kind of shorthand for our brains that help us identify, categorize, and associate with organizations, products, and even people that matter to us. And in the case of nonprofit brands, whose impact is often indirect to those who support it, these relationships give us the opportunity we seek to contribute to a better world and, as a result, a better us. And so long as our connection to, and belief in a nonprofit’s brand remains strong, then that nonprofit remain relevant to us.

This pandemic, if it favors anything, favors nonprofits with strong brands that stand for something and can demonstrate their ability to deliver on it. Society needs nonprofits right now in a major way. Millions of people are looking for reasons and ways to contribute. They are looking for partners to build capacity and amplify their efforts. They are looking for help in their time of need. And the nonprofits with strong, relevant brands are very likely the ones having the greatest success, both in attracting support and delivering on their promises. 

The reasons are fairly simple. Nonprofits with strong internal brands have a strong identity. Their people are more aligned with a common vision. They are more cohesive and have greater capacity—critical during this crisis when speed and coordination are required. Externally, strong nonprofit brands naturally attract attention because it’s clear who they are, what they stand for, and how they make a difference. Their message is focused, making it easier to appeal to donors with a refreshed reason for support. And whether their efforts are focused on the grassroots or grasstops, strong nonprofit brands have earned the trust and credibility needed to mobilize people, make decisions, and lead the effort.

Nonprofit Engagement Online During Social Distancing

If it wasn’t clear already, social distancing has shined a spotlight on how vital an effective digital strategy is to a nonprofit’s success. So many of our normal out-of-the-house activities and interactions are being conducted online during this crisis. While this situation may change as states open up, the process will be slow and there’s a good chance that many of us will be revisiting social distancing in the fall. It’s also not as if this trend online is a new development, so a strong digital strategy will increase in importance no matter how this crisis is resolved.

When it comes to online engagement, while social media is important to many organizations, the hub of almost every nonprofit’s digital efforts is its website. It’s a primary way that many people engage with a nonprofit. For some people, it may be the only direct experience they have. And a nonprofit’s website serves as a single source of truth for who they are, what they do, and why it matters. It’s a powerful brand ambassador that’s can share every facet of a nonprofit’s story, that facilitates communication, and that’s always ready to help anyone who visits. 

People may visit to learn about an organization’s mission or do a deep dive into program strategies. They may visit to access resources to support their own work. They may need to access benefits, services, or important information. Whatever the reason, a website is the thing that facilitates this relationship and makes a nonprofit relevant to audiences in every moment the engagement takes place.

The stakes are always high when people visit a nonprofit’s website. People form an opinion about your brand very quickly and there’s no one there to directly interact with them. This means that the kind of experience they have ultimately comes down to how well you know your audiences, how well you know yourself, and how well you understand how meaningful value is created in the relationships between you. So, during a time of pandemic, social distancing, and significantly increased digital engagement, it’s safe to say that having a great website that’s aligned with a great brand strategy is more important than ever for nonprofits looking to rise above the din of this crisis, increase their relevance, and achieve their goals.

In my next article, I’ll be providing ideas and examples for how different types of nonprofits can increase their brand’s relevance to audiences by delivering more valuable experiences for their audience. In the meantime, I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and cared for in this really challenging time.


About the Author

Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz

For the last 24 years, Matt has specialized in brand strategy and digital design, focusing his passion for social and environmental issues to help organizations achieve greater impact. As Constructive’s leader, Matt plays an active role in collaborating with clients and our teams to develop strategies and design brand experiences that increase mission focus and deepen audience engagement. A frequent writer and speaker, Matt is a regular contributor to The Foundation Center, Communications Network, and other organizations. 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 Bachelor’s Degree from Sarah Lawrence College in Writing & Visual Arts. He then conducted post-graduate design studies at the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons.

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