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Why is a Clear Brand Strategy So Important to Nonprofit Website Design?

Imagine you hear about a great nonprofit that sounds like it’s doing great work on an issue that you care about. What’s one of the first things you do to learn more? Head right to their website, of course. And within a few seconds of a visit to the nonprofit’s website (actually, about 7 seconds), you form an opinion of that nonprofit’s brand based on your first website visit. Do they look credible and trustworthy? Do they seem like experts who are having a significant impact? Can they help you with what you’re trying to accomplish? These and other questions are at the heart of a nonprofit’s brand strategy. Understanding how crucial this first website visit is in helping us form our opinion, you can see how important nonprofit brand strategy is to a nonprofit website that effectively engages people to advance a mission based on shared interests.

Decisions that our hypothetical nonprofit made months or even years ago about their website to introduce you to their brand come to life in this moment. Their strategic planning processes, how they’ve articulated their vision and values, their communications strategy, their content, design, and technology choices—even the budget they allocated—all work together to influence what you’ll do next. Will you explore further? Read their research? Visit again? Make a donation? Or, will you leave without viewing another page, likely never to return?

The difference between a nonprofit website that builds a meaningful relationship with you and one that turns you off for good isn’t perhaps as binary as our hypothetical scenario. But it’s not an overstatement to say that a nonprofit’s websites plays a pivotal role in how effectively social impact organizations drive audience engagement with their brands—and how well they ultimately turn this engagement into action.

Understanding Social Impact Value in Nonprofit Brands

Why do people engage with social impact brands and what role does a nonprofit’s website play in driving this engagement? Well, there are lots of reasons, of course. Mainly, we engage with nonprofits because they give us an opportunity to put our values into action. Think back to our hypothetical situation: There’s an issue you care deeply about. You hear about an organization doing important work on it. You take actions to get closer to this organization—usually starting with a website visit.

Lots of web design agencies will focus on the ideas of user experience—and with good reason. Great UX design is essential to an effective website. But nobody goes to a website to have a “user experience.” They go to a website because of the opportunities that it provides to engage with a brand—which means the brand must be both meaningful and valuable to them.

It’s my belief that the three biggest drivers of brand value for nonprofits come down to three key factors: Credibility, Proximity, and Impact. Back to our hypothetical visit to a nonprofit website. Let’s assume it’s well-designed visually (and it better be, because research proves how important this is to engagement). After that, what are you likely to be evaluating? First, how credible are they when it comes to leading on and making a difference on the issue that you care about? Second, how close are they to where the “action” is? Whether that’s geographically to a country where the work happens or whether they have access to important people and processes that are essential to making change happen. And third, what demonstrated impact are they having.

Credibility. Proximity. Impact. Nonprofits exist to help realize a world more like the one we’d like to live in. The nature of this relationship—and why it matters to us—is based on the kind of engagement we’re looking for. And the entirety of a nonprofit’s value is based on how well they communicate these things and how well they connect us to them. Which brings us back to our website.

Different Kinds of Nonprofit Brand Value for Different Audiences

In my career, I’ve done both a lot of UX design and brand strategy work. One of the things that’s always stood out to me—which is why I felt it was important for Constructive to focus here—is how the strategic framing of brand strategy and UX design are so similar. Both are focused on the intersection of “organizational goals” and “audience goals.” Strong nonprofit brands are built on a deep understanding of who their audiences are, what matters most to them, what the organization has to offer them—and what audiences can offer in return. Good UX design is exactly about this same dynamic.

This is why a strong nonprofit brand strategy is so important to a great website. It helps us better understand our diversity of audiences and why we matter to them, but not through the limiting lens of just our website. It focuses on a higher level of meaning and brand value that a nonprofit’s website can then tap into. From there, UX design can create the digital engagement a nonprofit wants, starting with that first visit—whoever the person visiting is.

For example, more “casual” supporters such as donors, volunteers, and advocates are often attracted by a nonprofit’s intangible and aspirational value—subjective things like how they make us feel about the kind of world we’d like to live in and how we’d like others to see us. For these audiences, high-quality, on-brand photography and engaging digital storytelling can bring them into closer proximity to the issues they identify with. Quick impact statements can demonstrate impact without having to go too deep—after all, it’s the intangible stuff and the emotions that are driving the engagement.

However, audiences who visit websites of nonprofit think tanks or scientific research institute websites are perhaps taking a more critical eye when forming their opinion. These may be research experts, practitioners, and policymakers. While they, of course, will connect with all of the intangible and aspirational qualities of nonprofit brands, they tend to be more rigorous and objective. That’s because the value of research institutes and nonprofit think tanks very well may influence their own work. The credibility factor is far more important than perhaps the proximity one (though, if proximity is having access to influential decision makers in government or business, this matters a lot). Nonprofit websites that follow through on their brand strategy by reinforcing credible, expert thought leadership and by giving experts access to knowledge resources, tools, and networks is essential to success.

Whatever a person’s needs and interests, it’s the job of a nonprofit’s website to create an experience that bridges the divide between interest and action. And if it is to be an authentic expression of a nonprofit’s brand, a website must represent the organization well and respond to the needs of audience as well—all with an eye towards delivering greater brand value.

Designing Digital Brand Experiences

When an organization creates (or redesigns) its website, there’s an understandable focus on things like making sure it’s “visually appealing,” “well-organized,” “mobile-friendly,” and other fundamentals of good design. These are all important things, but they only scratch the surface of reasons why people visit our websites. Design’s role in translating different types of brand value goes further than these basic principles of effective design.

If social change brands are to build the kinds of relationships they want with audiences—and if they are to have the kind of impact they envision—we must approach the design process with the goal to provide different people with the kinds of value they seek in a nonprofit and its mission. The website is simply a conduit for this exchange.

Using brand strategy as the lens through which we view the websites we create, website process is the best way to ensure we accomplish this goal. Because if successful design (and by this I mean design’s true definition) is all about context, then brand strategy is by far the best way to give everyone who contributes to the process the insight they need to create a website that helps social impact organizations achieve their goals online and in the real world.

About the Author

Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz

Matt believes in servant leadership, working 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 25 years of experience as a designer, brand strategist, and writer for the social impact sector, Matt helps Constructive’s teams design 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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