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The 6 Keys to Effective Nonprofit Branding

It used to be that nonprofits shied away from prioritizing their brands. However, over the last 10 years or so, nonprofits are becoming increasingly aware of the link between a brand’s strategic value and organizational impact. One reason for this shift, I suspect, is that competition — for funding, people’s attention, human capital — has gotten stiffer. And nowhere is that more apparent than online. When a nonprofit’s website is underwhelming, it is not only out there for the world to see, it also sends the wrong message and undercuts the organization’s mission.

What is a Brand?

Branding expert Marty Neumeier famously defines brand as “Who you are, what you do, and why you matter.” For nonprofits, this translates to your brand being a combination of your mission, values, strategy, relationships, impact — and their value to the world. It’s a gut feeling about the promises you make and your reputation for keeping (or breaking) them.

As Neumeier says: “It’s not what you say you are, it’s what they say you are.”

If a brand is essentially what others think about your organization, then branding is the application of creative thinking, design, and technology in the service of your organization’s brand strategy.

The Value of Nonprofit Brands

When it comes to driving engagement through branding, nonprofits typically face a tougher challenge than for-profits. Instead of delivering instant gratification or a useful product/service, nonprofits tend to appeal to our better angels — offering (usually) a vision of a better tomorrow for people and/or places removed from our daily routines. As a result, audiences can feel removed from the mission and may feel no urgency to act.

Because the strength of a brand is defined by the degree of trust and loyalty it elicits, this gap between action and impact places more of burden on a nonprofit’s brand to generate the kind of sustained engagement necessary to tackle complex problems. Whether the audience is individual donors, volunteers, or strategic partners, a nonprofit’s brand must convey the idea that the organization delivers on its promises — even if tangible results may be years down the road.

To do that, a nonprofit brand must be about more than the organization and its mission; it needs to address, at a deeper level, what is meaningful to an organization’s audiences. Because when people strongly identify with a nonprofit’s brand (rather than just its mission), their reasons for supporting the organization move beyond the rational to the emotional; the brand becomes part of who they are and what they value. It becomes a kind of shorthand for things about which they care deeply and reinforces their belief that they can become part of the solution through their active engagement with the organization.

Designing Effective Brand Experiences

Your brand is the sum total of all the experiences (direct and indirect) that others have with your organization. But while it lives in their hearts and minds, your organization can positively influence how your brand is perceived by combining brand strategy with creative design to deliver more meaningful and valuable experiences.

At Constructive we talk a lot about “bridging the gap between strategy and execution.” As a design firm, it’s our mission to design better brand experiences for clients that support their mission. To help our clients stand up, stand out, and stand for something, we work from the principle that there are three characteristics of the brand experience that must be present at all times:

  1. Strategically Informed: Every choice must tie back to the organizational/brand strategy and the specific goals for whatever it is we are creating, be it a logo, a website, or collateral.
  2. Exceptionally Crafted: We all know great work when we see it. It is the quality of craftsmanship in every word used and in every designed element that separates the exceptional from the merely okay.
  3. Consistently Executed: People want to know what to expect from brands they support. Consistent branding signals commitment, builds trust, and delivers a host of other benefits.

6 Key Components of Nonprofit Brands

To build a strategic, exceptional, and consistent brand first requires understanding the many facets of an organization that contribute to the overall brand experience. In our view, there are six key components of a nonprofit organization that define its brand:

Brand is Your Organizational Strategy. For mission-driven organizations, where you are aiming to go and how you plan to get there are the primary drivers of your brand (and, ideally, are well-defined through clear brand positioning).

Brand is Your People. Brand ideas and values must be lived by your people and be fully integrated into your organization’s culture. Strong nonprofit brands naturally attract people who will represent them well.

Brand is Your Messages. What we say and the way we say it, both in writing and in person, say a lot about who we are. Every audience is interested in hearing different things — and depending on the audience, your brand likely has different things it would like to share.

Brand is Your Interactions. Both in person (whether at the point of service or an event) and online, interactions with your audiences should be crafted to deliver on your promises and reinforce the value of their relationship with you.

Brand is Your Visual Design. People interpret much of the world through what they see. These days, especially, the quality of a nonprofit’s visual design elements greatly determines how much attention the organization receives, people’s willingness to engage with it, and, ultimately, the strength of the bonds it forges with supporters.

Brand is Your Communications Tools. To a significant degree, brand experiences are delivered through communications tools and vehicles. Because brand consistency builds trust, a cohesive design system with clear brand guidelines helps ensure that you meet audience expectations on a consistent basis.


A version of this article originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest in Constructive Founder, Matt Schwartz‘s Cause-Driven Design® column.

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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