Does your organization’s website paint an accurate picture of who you are, what you do, and the values you stand for? Available to nearly anyone at anytime, websites play a pivotal role in how effectively nonprofits are engaging audiences and turning that engagement into action. Could yours be doing a better job helping advance your mission?
We teamed up with ComNet for a webinar to teach you how your organization can deliver a more engaging, mission-driven brand experience online. Led by Constructive’s Founder & Executive Director Matt Schwartz, we explore strategies and practical techniques to integrate your organizational strategy into the digital design process—aligning your website’s structure, content, design, and features.
In this webinar, you’ll learn:
The foundation of an effective brand strategy framework.
How social impact brands create and deliver brand value.
How design translates brand value into tangible experiences.
How to frame website discussions and decisions within a brand strategy.
Workshop activities for designing brand experience.
In part 1 of this series, I explained that “brands are created from the inside-out.” So while it’s essential to drive external branding with a well-designed strategy, it’s also important to use that strategy “to focus your mission and cultivate the right kind of internal behavior, actions, and culture.” The shorthand for this concept is called a “living brand,” a concept that’s been part of business management lexicon for some time. Living brands help build and maintain organizational identity and cohesion, which is especially important in the social impact sector, where success is harder to measure than it is in the bottom-line-driven for-profit world.
Unfortunately, nonprofits engaged in strategic planning and brand strategy work often struggle to translate the internal memos and documents generated by the process into broader organizational change. That’s because while this work signals an organization’s commitment to change and (when done well) offers a path forward, it takes consistent follow-through to get staff aligned with the ideas and concepts behind the strategy.
That’s where internal branding shines.
Branding is about engaging and activating audiences, mostly through design (in the broadest sense of the term). But as is the case when engaging audiences outside your organization, you have to do more for your internal audiences than communicate what a brand stands for; you have to demonstrate it. By being purposeful about the experiences created for staff, design can help us translate strategy into something tangible and exciting — something that “lives and breathes” for staff and stakeholders alike.
In other words, positively influencing how staff view and experience their work requires you to be both strategic and creative in how you weave the ideas and concepts behind your brand into everyday workplace situations. It also requires leadership that is committed to the brand and what it stands for. So, assuming you’re able to marshal the interest in and resources for an internal branding effort, what will success look like? Here are five benefits of internal branding that underscore its value to nonprofit organizations.
1. Internal branding improves mission focus.
Any nonprofit looking to create significant impact needs to start with a focused mission. Strategic planning and brand strategy are the primary ways to create that focus. Internal branding makes this work tangible by translating strategic planning and brand strategy into communications and experiences that reinforce it — ideally by emphasizing how audiences view and experience an organization’s value proposition. When done well, internal branding not only helps focus your mission — it focuses your organization on what matters to your audiences.
Think of internal branding as a platform that enables your people to embody the core ideas driving your brand and the specific ways in which you deliver value, both to your different audiences and the world at large. Just make sure your internal branding is consistent with the expectations and experiences created by your external branding.
2. Internal branding deepens employees’ connection to the organization.
Work is a big part of who we are and how we see ourselves — especially for people in the social impact sector. By weaving the ideas an organization stands for into the employee experience, you can actually deepen the work-life connection — and make staff feel more connected to the values, attitudes, beliefs your organizations stands for.
The platform for cultivating this connection is a brand strategy that has been developed through an inclusive process. This helps ensure that your brand has buy-in from staff and that they will be more willing to embrace it. It’s also the best way to turn static documents into meaningful brand experiences. By being thoughtful and creative about how you integrate core ideas into your organizational culture, your brand becomes a deeper part of that culture — and something staff are empowered (and will want) to contribute to.
3. Internal branding breaks down organizational silos.
Silos are damaging in any organization, but particularly in nonprofits, where partnerships and collaboration are critical to success. When people don’t understand what their colleagues do or how their work fits together, initiatives tend to become disjointed and less effective. In the worst-case scenario, distrust and resentment set in.
Internal branding — both the process of developing it and the results it can produce — is an effective way to “un-silo.” The key is to articulate how change happens — both in terms of your organization’s operations and its aspirations. Clarifying the different roles your organization plays in its ecosystem helps staff contextualize their contributions to the work and makes clear how everyone’s efforts work together to advance the mission.
4. Internal branding improves hiring and retention.
For any nonprofit, finding the right people — people who contribute to the desired mix of skills, values, and personalities — is a never-ending challenge. Of course, people who feel passionate about an organization’s work and are happy in their roles are more likely to be, and stay, committed to the organization — and to share that enthusiasm with others. This creates a magnetic force that keeps teams together for longer, increasing continuity, cohesion, and performance.
Also known as “employer branding,” internal branding helps hiring and retention by reinforcing your brand value among the people most likely to feel passionate about it, your staff. And when your organization’s core values are woven into its culture in a way that makes “living the brand” second nature, it becomes much easier to identify and attract people who will fit right in — and stay with you longer.
Everyone knows that strong organizations need strong leaders to succeed. But to succeed, leaders need a strong brand from and through which they can draw inspiration and channel their efforts. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two that, when embraced and approached thoughtfully, is mutually reinforcing.
As noted above, it’s essential you develop your brand from the bottom-up through an inclusive process. It’s equally important that leadership proactively drive that brand-building effort. Articulating and helping to build a brand that your people believe in will earn you the trust and confidence of your staff, not to mention valuable political capital. By being visibly engaged in the process (and reinforcing it), you signal to staff that the organization’s brand is a priority, that living it is everyone’s responsibility, and that you applaud and support their commitment to being good brand stewards.
Adding it All Up
The five benefits I’ve outlined above are only some of what makes internal branding so valuable for nonprofits. Achieving results, however, depends on a combination of approach, process, and commitment. In the next (and last) article in this series, I’ll go into detail about what the process looks like and where you’ll find some of the best opportunities to apply it.
Imagine you hear about a really interesting social impact organization that sounds like it’s doing important work in an area you have a lot of interest in. You’re immediately curious and want to know more. What’s one of the first things you do? Head right to their website.
You might be on your phone at a conference, working at your desk, or at home surfing on your tablet. You might go directly to their homepage, or you might be clicking a link someone shared that goes to a page deep within their website. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, the second you arrive, you’re presented with a snapshot of the organization.
And in this instant, you start forming an opinion. Is this organization interesting? Do they reflect your values? Are they credible? Effective? Trustworthy? Relevant?
Decisions the organization made months or years ago to introduce you to its brand at this moment—from the budget they set for the website, to the partner they worked with, to their content, design, and technology choices—are now significantly influencing what you’ll do next. Will you explore further, perhaps sign up for a newsletter, and hopefully visit again? Or will you leave without viewing another page, likely never to return?
Of course, the difference between a website that helps build a meaningful relationship with someone and one that turns them off for good isn’t as cut-and-dried as our hypothetical scenario. But it’s not an overstatement to say that websites play a pivotal role in how effectively nonprofits are engaging audiences and turning that engagement into action.
Understanding Brand Value
So, why do people choose to engage with social impact brands? And what role does a website play in creating this engagement?
We engage with nonprofits because they give us an opportunity to put our values into action. Purpose-driven organizations provide us with ways 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.
“Casual” supporters such as donors, volunteers, and brand advocates are typically attracted by a nonprofit’s intangible and aspirational value—subjective things like the kind of world we’d like to live in, our emotions, and how we’d like others to see us. For these audiences, imagery, storytelling, and campaigns bring them closer to issues they identify with and are usually the most important part of their experience with the brand.
More engaged audiences, such as issue area experts, practitioners, and policymakers are also influenced by intangible qualities. Taking it a step further, though, they also want to know the tangible ways social impact organizations can help them be more effective in their own work. For these audiences, access to things like knowledge resources, tools, and networks is usually the most important part of the brand experience.
Of course, whatever a person’s specific 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 and effective expression of a nonprofit’s brand, a website must represent an organization and respond to the needs of its audience as well as we would if we were representing the organization in person.
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.
Imagine you work at a nonprofit or a foundation with a decent-sized staff (a few dozen to as many as a hundred employees). It might be a national research institute or a local community development organization. It has several departments focused on different issues or areas of operation. There may be physical offices catering to different needs or populations. It might even be part of a larger network of organizations.
Whatever the situation, each day everyone comes to work and does his or her best to contribute to the organization’s mission. But while there’s a sense of what you’re all working towards, there are disconnects. Silos and knowledge gaps are stifling innovation and affecting results. New funding streams have led to mission creep. The organization has grown, added lots of new faces, and its strategic plan needs revisiting. Staff have very different ways of talking about the organization’s work.
The result is fragmentation that’s making people inside the organization less effective — and is confusing lots of people outside the organization. So leadership decides it’s time to address the problem by working on the organization’s branding with the goal of creating clarity and getting everyone on the same page.
Falling Short of Our Goals
Branding is important to the success of any organization, but it’s particularly important for those in the nonprofit sector. Social impact work is complex and often abstract; results can be more difficult to measure (and achieve) than in the for-profit world; and the temptation of new opportunities for impact (and the funding that comes with them) means mission creep is always a concern.
The struggle to channel the passion and complexity (and opinions!) associated with social impact work is real. But branding offers a way forward — a process that, when executed well, aligns a nonprofit’s aspirations, operations, and communications.
Too often, however, the results, while useful, fall short of expectations. Instead of creating the strategic focus and clarity leadership had hoped for, a process filled with research, soul-searching, and valuable insights results mostly in carefully crafted content and a new visual identity. Both important things! But…the ultimate goal of strategic brand development should be more than just a new logo and improved communications materials. The real goal should be to dramatically increase an organization’s ability to lead in its area(s) of focus by increasing its cohesion, capacity, and impact.
So what are the roadblocks to developing a brand that significantly improves your organization’s capacity to lead on the issues it cares about most?
EBB (External Branding Bias) Syndrome
What comes to mind when we talk about branding? For most people, it’s external things like reputation, messaging, design, and experiences. That makes sense. How a brand is both projected and experienced is essential to engaging the people outside an organization who benefit from and support its work. External branding is how organizations manage their relationships with people, and it’s how people relate to them. Every external brand experience — online and in person — contributes to generating (or reducing) trust in, support for, and action on behalf of an organization.
Nonprofits often have a particularly strong bias towards external branding. Perhaps it’s because nonprofits direct so much of their energy to collaborating with and serving others. In addition, until about a decade ago, branding was mostly viewed in the nonprofit sector as something that only applied to communications and fundraising. And most nonprofits are understandably reluctant to spend limited resources on themselves when the needs outside the organization are so pressing.
As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Brands are created from the inside-out, so while it’s essential to use strategy to drive your external branding, 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 organization’s ability to make a difference if its own people don’t have (and exude!) the same kind of clarity and conviction?
It’s What’s Inside That Matters
We tell our children not to judge others by how they look (or sound). 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 “skin-deep” approach to brand development 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 the organization’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.
After all, isn’t this what most of us are looking for when we decide to work on our brand?
In Part 2, I’ll go into greater detail about the benefits of an effective internal branding process and what they mean for social impact organizations.
When I tell people I work on nonprofit brand strategy, I get a lot of blank stares and raised eyebrows. I get it: brand strategy is a bit of a buzzword these days and it’s not exactly easy to define or understand. Adding to the confusion, there’s a lingering perception that brand strategy belongs exclusively to the corporate world, that it’s something mega brands like Nike, Coca Cola, and Starbucks leverage to woo new customers in a crowded marketplace.
So this article is for all those interested in, confused by, or skeptical about nonprofit brand strategy. It’s my answer to the raised eyebrows, a proclamation of my firmly held conviction that a well-articulated brand strategy can be transformative for organizations working to create social change.
Agreeing on a Definition
Our team has written a lot about brand theory already, and my aim in this article is to move beyond theory and discuss some of the tangible outcomes of a successful nonprofit brand strategy. But to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’d like to quickly review what brand and brand strategy are.
There are many definitions of brand, but for our purposes let me define it as the collective perception of an organization shared by its customers or constituents. Brand lives in the minds and experiences of all the different people who come into contact with an organization, including staff, board members, donors, beneficiaries, etc. As branding/design/all-around genius Marty Neumeier notes, your brand is not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.
Brand strategy is an organization’s articulation of how its brand is meant to be understood and expressed. At Constructive, we break down brand strategy into the ideas that drive and position an organization, the messages that express them, and the designed experiences that translate these ideas into more tangible deliverables such as a visual identity, communications collateral, and digital presence.
So with that out of the way, how does a successfully defined brand strategy actually help social change organizations accomplish their mission?
A Gut Check
In my opinion, some of the greatest benefits to be gained from a brand strategy engagement come from the process itself, not only from the final deliverables.
Nonprofit brand strategy engagements typically (and always should) begin with extensive research and analysis of the organization and its existing brand. At Constructive, this phase is known as “discovery,” and our research can take the form of interviews with internal and external audiences, surveys, peer analyses, and workshops with organizational leadership and staff. The culmination of this phase is a brand assessment that articulates the organizational goals for the brand strategy engagement, the perceived weaknesses and strengths of the organization’s current brand, and a plan for mitigating challenges and leveraging opportunities.
Regardless of the exact nature of this up-front research and assessment phase, the value-add is the same: invaluable insights on how people — from junior staff to leadership, donors to beneficiaries — perceive your brand. It’s a rare opportunity to gain visibility into how all these audiences think about and value your work.
These perspectives can be incorporated into organizational strategy as well as brand strategy, helping organizations address internal challenges that emerge down the road or adjust their priorities based on audience feedback. For what it’s worth, I’ve never worked on a nonprofit brand strategy engagement that didn’t illuminate organizational challenges and help inform leadership’s response to those challenges.
An Authentic, Democratized Identity
At Constructive, we often say brand strategy should be built from the ground up and embraced from the top down. Why? Because brands that reflect the ideas and perspectives of only a few at the top of the organization and/or a small team of consultants are far less likely to resonate with a wider audience — including the staff and volunteers responsible for sustaining most nonprofit organizations.
Hey, nonprofits-that-have-messaging-and/or-visual-branding-that-either-has-never-resonated-or-no-longer resonates-with-staff, I’m speaking to you! You know what you also have? Staff who might feel demoralized and disconnected from the organization. Staff usually bear the burden of an outdated or dysfunctional brand because they’re the ones tasked with developing bespoke communications material from scratch or visual workarounds to overcome the fact that the organization’s brand is no longer an asset but an affliction. And that, understandably, can lead to frustration, resentment, and reduced productivity.
For external audiences, outdated visual branding is always a turn-off, especially given the level of visual sophistication that most of us, in the age of Behance and Instagram, have come to expect. By the same token, if a nonprofit’s messaging no longer accurately reflects the work it is doing, its audiences are going to be confused. And who needs that?
Because it’s built on the perspectives of many, not just a few, a well-executed brand strategy engagement ensures that a nonprofit’s brand resonates with both internal and external audiences. And by understanding what motivates staff to do the work, donors to donate, and partners to engage, an organization will find itself in a much better position to communicate these key ideas in its messaging and designed experiences, transforming its brand into one of its greatest resources.
Bringing Clarity to the Cause
Many of our clients come to us for help because their external audiences seem to struggle to understand what they do and why it matters. They know that a well-articulated brand strategy can provide clarity to folks outside an organization, helping them understand the change an organization is seeking to create, how it plans to accomplish its goal(s), and how they can engage with the organization to bring about that change. It almost goes without saying that the more clarity a nonprofit can provide its audiences, the better positioned it will be to capture their attention, change their hearts and minds, and galvanize them to act.
That said, a related benefit of brand strategy that’s often overlooked is the clarity of purpose it provides internal stakeholders.
Having worked in nonprofit leadership, I’ve seen first-hand the disparate ideas floating around about brand values/roles/personality/logos/etc. Board meetings that touched on brand issues were a particular pleasure. (Not.) Now that I’ve switched to consulting, it never surprises me when nonprofit staff, leaders, and board members offer different versions of their organization’s vision and goals, not to mention the path forward for achieving them. It’s understandable — the business of change is complex, and lots of nonprofits go at it through different programs, services, and initiatives. It’s sort of like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, with each person describing that part of an organization’s work with which they are most familiar.
Again, one of the most transformative benefits of a successful brand strategy engagement is that the process, when executed well, brings together a range of unique perspectives that, in their totality, articulate the shared ideas that drive the organization’s programs and motivate its people.
When staff, leadership, and board members feel that their perspectives have been heard, and their ideas (and concerns) are reflected in a vision and brand narrative that captures that totality, they are better able to understand how their specific piece of the puzzle fits into the bigger picture (or, to continue the analogy; how each elephant part is attached to the others). That kind of unity and shared understanding can be enormously valuable for organizations used to struggling with programmatic silos, miscommunications, duplicated effort, and staff frustration and burnout.
Greater Consistency — and Trust
We’ve all heard the phrase “that’s not on brand,” an expression that inspires eye rolls from even committed brand enthusiasts. But if nonprofits hope to convey consistency and build trust, they need to be able to assess what does (and doesn’t) fit their brand. Here, too, an effective brand strategy can provide a much-needed framework.
Consistency is key to building trust with audiences. Humans tend not to like surprises and feel most comfortable when they know what to expect from others. We tend to like—and trust—people who are dependable (even if they’re dependably flaky), and whose responses in a range of situations are more or less predictable. The same applies for brands — to build trust with your audiences, you want them to feel confident about what they can expect from you.
This idea is especially important in a nonprofit context, as organizations routinely ask supporters and potential supporters to put a great deal of faith in them: they ask us to give them our attention over many other worthy causes, ask to be trusted as thought leaders, and ask for our hard-earned dollars. But every time someone perceives an inconsistency in a nonprofit’s brand — maybe they notice different versions of a logo on a website, or come across different versions of a mission statement in collateral, or land on a donation page that doesn’t work properly — it undermines their confidence and trust in an organization.
That’s why nonprofits need to take the idea of projecting consistency seriously. It’s not just the job of a communications manager to make sure the team is using the correct logo. You need a brand strategy that articulates a coherent messaging framework and provides internal stakeholders with everything they might need in the way of brand guidelines to convince your supporters and potential supporters that yours is a consistent, dependable organization.
Nonprofit Brand Strategy Increases Capacity and Impact
Let’s be real: the most brilliant nonprofit brand strategy will not boost an organization’s impact by itself. No, the value of an effective brand strategy lies in its usefulness to the real heroes of the show — the people who do the work.
People—committed, talented staff who bring their expertise to the hard work of creating positive change—are the most important assets a nonprofit possesses. And, in most cases, their job shouldn’t require them to think about the organization’s brand; their job is to create impact. By providing them with consistent brand messaging, compelling collateral, and a clear set of brand guidelines, brand strategy can be an invaluable tool that supports and amplifies their work.
So when people ask me what nonprofit brand strategy is good for, I tell them this: brand strategy is a sort of North Star that helps inform an organization’s strategies and ensures that its talented staff arrive safely at their destination. By articulating messaging and brand experiences that express shared ideas, it helps organizations communicate with clarity and consistency to their audiences, and, in turn, helps audiences better understand a nonprofit’s vision and how they can engage with it to advance a good cause.
And the end result of all that? Greater impact. So there.
Today’s digital landscape is crippling our ability to focus, with people’s average attention span now shorter than a goldfish’s. We also spend over 10 hours a day consuming content from digital screens. Add it up, and our understanding of the world and our connections to it are significantly shaped online while our ability to process and put information to good use are increasingly diminished. In this environment, organizations who publish content online to help make change happen in the real world face significant challenges. How do they build meaningful relationships with audiences, broaden people’s perspective and deepen understanding to increase the impact of their work? And how must they think differently about the ways they produce and publish content?
Matthew Schwartz (Founder & Director of Strategy) and Senongo Akpem (Design Director) of social change design agency, Constructive, you’ll gain insights into strategies and techniques that will transform how your organization produces and delivers content online—and turn your website visitors into readers and website visits into journeys.
Specifically, you’ll learn:
The principles of content-centric design
Design’s role in increasing credibility and persuasion
How to organize & present content for greater clarity
How to create greater context & deeper meaning for audiences
How to deliver memorable takeaways and encourage longer reads
How to produce flexible content that can be reused across channels
You work at a foundation or a nonprofit. At many orgs, this belief persists: we don’t have a brand, we have a mission! Yeah, ok. That’s true. Now, let’s be real, your organization has a brand.
And that’s a good thing. Here’s why—unlike most for-profit companies, your org’s brand is about bold ideas aimed at doing good. And for virtually every foundation and nonprofit, your website connects audiences to what you stand for, what you do, the impact you have, and most importantly, why it all matters.
But too often, organizations with incredibly inspiring missions have sites that leave audiences more confused than committed, and more exhausted than energized. For social change organizations, it’s time to think beyond transactional websites.
This Communications Network webinar is led by Matthew Schwartz, Founder and Director of Strategy at social change brand strategy and experience design firm Constructive. We’re going to explore how to cultivate and build an enduring strategy to advance your brand online, which will help you advance your mission and achieve the magic word: Impact.
How to translate organizational strategy into impactful online brand experiences
How to increase engagement and shared learning across long-term digital projects
What the four core strategies are to every website, and the roles they play
How brand strategy improves the website design and development process
It takes great focus and clarity for brands to rise above the din of the crowd and be heard in today’s information-saturated world. And for social change organizations, the challenge is even greater. Because when the message is about a better future, possibly somewhere far away, mission-driven brands must also create a sense of urgency to act on issues that may seem far removed from our lives. They may need to explain complexities that can be difficult to understand and embrace. And when the size of the lift seems so big, they often must help close the hope gap by demonstrating tangible progress and results if they are to sustain our engagement.
Said more simply, if they are to succeed, social change brands need to stand up, stand out, and stand for something. Fortunately, changes over the last few decades have provided us with both the environment and the insights necessary to take on these intertwined challenges. The rise of networked technologies and digital communications, the maturation of the design field, and a recent awakening within many nonprofits about the value of their brand have combined to provide new opportunities to increase the effectiveness of the social change sector. The challenge then is to understand the environment in which social change brands exist and apply this understanding to help us design solutions that offer the best chance to maximize impact.
The Rise of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector
It’s no secret that over the years, brand has had a bit of a tortured existence in the nonprofit sector. However, more nonprofits are getting past their brand skepticism (if not outright resistance), and have thankfully been re-examining their relationship with “The B-word.” By making smart adaptations to traditional business-centric brand principles, organizations such as The Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and The Communications Network have contributed to help evolve the role of brand within nonprofits; developing a mission-driven, participatory framework more in keeping with the sector’s values.
This new way of thinking, articulated in Nathalie Laider-Kylander’s and Julia Shephard Stenzel’s landmark book, The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity, is perhaps summarized best in its introduction by Christopher Stone, President of Open Society Foundations: “A brand is a powerful expression of an organization’s mission and values, that can help engineer collaborations and partnerships that will better enable it to fulfill its mission and deepen impact, and it’s a strategic asset essential to the success of the organization itself.”
Understood this way, a nonprofit’s brand offers the potential for far more than just good messages and visuals. It’s the DNA of a social change organization’s ideas, expertise, relationships, resources, and experiences, and guides organizational culture by bringing people together around a shared vision to make it easier to create shared value.
If we accept this idea—and we should—then we must also consider how social change organizations can most effectively translate brand nuance and complexity into something more tangible. How can we create experiences that make it easier and more enticing for people to participate in creating this shared value. And more important, how can we make sure that our solutions continuously maintain the integrity of our brand and deliver meaningful experiences that sustain audience engagement?
Translating Organizational Strategy
It can be daunting to fully understand what some nonprofits do—not just for the outside world, but sometimes even for those who work inside them! Countless activities and moving parts all work together to advance a mission. But how do they relate to one another, and to what ends? Brand strategy has long been a useful tool for helping organizations increase clarity and focus to help an organization better understand itself and its audience. Done right, it provides an important foundation for expressing mission, vision, values, and key messages with greater consistency.
For social change organizations, many of whom take on complex, systemic challenges where progress may be more difficult to see, brand strategy has an even bigger role to play. It must also connect people more deeply to how change actually happens. It must help social change brands educate us on the nature of the challenges, detail the different roles they play in addressing them, and explain how we can work together and what to expect along the way. This calls for a brand narrative that creates a strong through-line from mission success all the way through to engagement.
The benefits of a process that creates a clear brand strategy to articulate a narrative this nuanced are profound when it comes to organizational strategy. The risk is that months of discovery and self-analysis produce useful strategy that sits on a shelf and is not properly integrated into an organization so that it is felt at every level of experience people have with the brand.
So how do brands make these abstract concepts and processes more tangible, meaningful and valuable? Well, as branding expert Marty Neuimeir says, this means “you gotta design.”
Design, Value, and Meaning
Think about how much of our existence is built on design. There’s a reason humans live in such a thoroughly designed world—we’re highly visual creatures and design is how we make sense of it! Countless designed experiences every day, many of which we are barely aware of, create context and connect with our emotions, greatly affecting our perception of value, and therefore meaning. And design—both its process and its outcomes—is all about relationships and context.
Brands themselves are one of these designed constructs. Dating as far back as our use of heraldry to self-identify with a tribe or clan, brands are powerful concepts that help give greater meaning to our lives. In many ways, they encapsulate what we value, and conversely, what we do not value. And as the design discipline is all about working in context, for modern brands to design experiences that connect with these deeper feelings of value and meaning, the people who contribute to designing them must first understand the many contexts in which the brand exists.
An effective design process accomplishes this by making makes sure that the outcomes of our collective efforts are aligned with what we believe will effectively engage people to help them realize the value they seek. But what kind of value exactly are we referring to? Modern brand theory organizes brand value in three categories, which every brand has its own mix of depending on the type of brand it is:
Tangible value is the easiest to understand: Things we can see, touch, or empirically quantify such as how a brand works and its measurable results,
Intangible value is of course, less tangible: How a brand makes us feel or what meaning it adds to our lives, and
Aspirational value is the most abstract: Projections of who we hope to become or what we’d like to make possible as a result of our relationship with a brand.
As the theory goes, the more tangible a brand’s value, the more easily it can be understood. Conversely, the more intangible the value, the less easy it is to define and the more outside of a brand’s control it is. For social change brands, who often deal in large amounts of intangible and aspirational value, the challenge then is to use the power of design to consistently deliver value on all fronts and create tangible experiences that deepen our engagement to their missions.
Designing Better Brand Experiences
Design has often been described as “strategy made visible.” It’s what helps makes the value in an organization’s brand able to be experienced—online, in print, and in person. As brands are not static things, these experiences occur across time, which means that to consistently deliver value across the lifetime of a person’s relationship with the brand requires, we must fully understand where, how, and why value is created—as well as the context in which experiences happen between the audience and the brand, physically and conceptually.
Which is exactly where a well-articulated brand strategy provides enormous benefits.
For social change organizations to consistently design experiences that bridge the gap between mission and motivation, a well-articulated strategy is not just an ideal starting point to think about brand, it is also an essential through-line of the design process. This is because since design is a highly collaborative, co-created process, brand strategy greatly improves the ability of designers and non-designers to more effectively frame challenges, opportunities, and projects. By translating organizational strategy into a clearly articulated positioning and messaging framework, brand strategy helps stakeholders make better decisions to advance the strategy throughout the design process and more objectively evaluate its outcomes.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of digital communications, where the entirety of people’s interactions with a brand occurs through a screen. To create these experiences, cross-functional teams of content strategists, user experience designers, visual designers, content creators, and technologists must all work together to translate a brand’s value through things like content taxonomies, interfaces, and system architecture. By designing through a clearly-defined brand strategy that articulates the kinds of experiences we’re trying to create, people with different perspectives are more able to have productive conversations in a shared language about what such an experience might be like. We’re also likely to be more collaborative in applying our collective experience, expertise, and opinions to create it, resulting in a better working relationship and better outcomes.
Putting Theory into Practice
Ultimately, every organization engaged in helping to bring about social, economic, and environmental change has its own combination of beliefs, culture, methods, and more. And each of these unique brands stands for something bigger than itself; something which has different meaning and value depending on who’s receiving it.
When the brand strategy and design processes are united, they provide a powerful lens through which to understand the complexity and nuance of these dynamics and articulate them with greater clarity, meaning, and empathy. Together, they help a social change organization better understand itself so that its efforts are more focused and aligned; then more effectively apply design’s ability to translate ideas, concepts, and value into tangible experiences so that when audiences engage with their brand, it stands up, stands out, and stands for something.
In my former life (B.C., or “Before Constructive”), I ran a nonprofit in New Zealand that raised awareness and funds for cancer research. Like a lot of nonprofit leaders, I wore many hats and had a wide scope of responsibilities, including the organization’s communication strategy and a major overhaul of our website. I found the latter experience both fascinating and terrifying — and, believe me, the learning curve was steep. Despite my initial trepidation, however, I was gradually bewitched by the process — and the meeting of minds that was our partnership with the agency we eventually selected. It was magic: our mission and vision, their creativity and expertise, all of it leading to something that looked great and truly had the power to change lives.
On returning to the U.S., I made the leap to a brand strategy and design firm with the intention of participating in and experiencing that magic on a more frequent basis. These days, I’m often the first point of contact between Constructive and social sector organizations that reach out to us for assistance. I get to chat with many people like my former colleagues about their challenges and how we can help them better advance their missions.
With half a year under my belt here, I often find myself wishing I could do more to share the agency viewpoint with all the fantastic social change organizations out there. I daydream about time-traveling to tell my past self how to find an agency partner that would not only do a great job on my project, but also bring a perspective to the work that I didn’t know was missing and add value I didn’t know existed.
So, if you’re beginning a search for a branding or digital agency and are struggling to develop an effective RFP, here’s a little helpful guidance (I hope) from a former nonprofit leader who’s moved to the agency world and is deepening her understanding of both sides of the nonprofit-agency equation.
1. Clarify your goals (but don’t be prescriptive).
If you’re issuing an RFP for a website redesign or rebranding project, you’re already familiar with the pain points that brought you to this stage. Of course, the first thing you’ll want to do is to clarify the likely challenges and strategic goals for the project. But don’t get carried away!
As someone responsible for selecting a partner for an important project, it’s tempting to create an RFP that includes everything you might need in painstaking detail. If nothing else, you may tell yourself, it will make it easier to evaluate the proposals you receive in response to the RFP. But there’s a fine line between articulating your goals for a design/rebranding project and being prescriptive about how you expect to achieve those goals. And time you and your colleagues spend “designing” your ideal solution now is likely to be time, as the process unfolds, that’s not well spent.
According to business development expert Blair Enns, the vast amount of information easily accessible on the Internet has led to a dramatic rise in the number of organizations that approach agencies, of all kinds, with entrenched ideas about the solutions needed to solve their problems. And that often leads to unfortunate consequences. You don’t have to be a genius to appreciate Einstein’s observation that “it’s unlikely that [a] problem will be solved from within the context it was created.” While proactivity in a client is something every agency welcomes, it can be a problem when experts in a domain are not allowed to exercise that expertise. A good partner will be equally effective in combining the expertise of the client with its own unique expertise to create something greater than either could achieve on their own. And if there’s one thing agencies bring to the table that clients are unlikely to develop on their own, it’s an “outside” perspective and new thinking.
So, if you’re issuing an RFP, yes, absolutely, make sure you know what your goals for the engagement are. But before you spend valuable time adding painstaking detail to your RFP, remember that you want to leave room for good ideas that aren’t necessarily your own to flourish. Then go find a partner who is willing to ask challenging questions and can help shape, not simply implement your vision.
2. Know (and be willing to share) your budget.
Many social change organizations are hesitant to share their budget with potential design or branding partners. Believe me, I get it — I didn’t share my budget with firms that were looking to do business with us, and, at the time, I “had my reasons.” Despite the due diligence we had done, I wasn’t confident about what a design project “should” cost and was looking to firms to put a price on it. And, yes, I was also afraid that agencies in the hunt for our business would try to pull the wool over my eyes and raise their price to match the budget we had shared with them. But now that I’m on the other side, I see things differently.
Trying to estimate what your project “should” cost is time well-spent. Do you need a basic brochure website that can be built on SquareSpace, or do you have ambitious goals that require the skills of a partner with serious technical chops? How heavy is the lift? Unless you have carte blanche from your board and bottomless funds, establishing realistic budget expectations for a project is essential. And once those expectations have been established, you need to share them with potential partners.
I understand why people don’t like to discuss money up front. But open and honest conversations around budgets are critical if you hope to create a project plan that will achieve your goals. Budget is a design consideration, and good design firms should be able to work with you to prioritize and/or scale back features, identifying must-haves from nice-to-haves. Think of the design firm as a consultative partner advising you on how to get the biggest bang for your buck and offering a menu of options customized to your needs. If you refuse to share or discuss budget, you will be cheating yourself of the opportunity to have those kinds of conversations, and at the end of the day that’s lousy for everyone involved.
3. Have a realistic timeline.
Shifts in branding or digital strategy often are driven by changes in a strategic plan or other time-sensitive initiatives. And website redesigns have been a pain point for nonprofit leaders, well, forever. But in my experience, what often pushes an organization to commit to a website overhaul is something they see happening “down the road.” Unfortunately, the future almost always arrives much faster than you expect it to.
The majority of RFPs I see propose completion dates for projects based on egregiously optimistic “project kickoff” dates. Organizations habitually underestimate the time it takes to choose a partner and get started on a project: by the time key stakeholders have met with all the agencies under consideration, compared cost estimates, and come to a decision, they are already well into their timeline. Of course, this almost always creates panic and affects an organization’s ability to make smart decisions.
Given the strategic importance to an organization of branding and its website, you really don’t want to rush through the strategy, design, and implementation process. Because you’re investing valuable time and money, you want to do it right the first time, and cutting corners almost always will come back to haunt you. So do yourself a favor and avoid a lot of panic, stress, and regret by establishing a realistic timeline that includes a cushion for unforeseen contingencies.
4. Narrow the field.
After you’ve determined your goals, requirements, and budget, it’s time to identify potential partners. Use Google and whatever tools you have at your disposal to find websites you like, and don’t be shy about reaching out to those organizations to ask who designed and built their site. Next, spend some time looking at various agencies’ work to determine whether it resonates with you, and check out rating resources like Clutch that speak with former clients and publish detailed agency ratings.
In my former life as a nonprofit leader, I tended to approach the RFP process in a “more the merrier” spirit. I mean, who knew, maybe a superstar firm would come out of the woodwork. But while it’s natural to want to have as many options as possible, studies have shown that having too many options can paralyze a decision-maker or group of decision-makers and can even lead to people making a decision that isn’t in their best interest. I experienced this firsthand and can say without hesitation that you are doing yourself, and the design firms you are thinking about working with, a disservice by not limiting your pool of candidates. Reading and assessing proposals submitted in response to a well-crafted RFP requires a significant amount of time — time that could be drastically reduced by engaging in candid conversations with potential partners that give you an opportunity to determine whether there is even the possibility of a good fit between the firm and your organization.
So once you’ve identified a handful of firms, reach out and try to meet or speak with them before issuing an RFP. Through these discussions, you should be able to narrow your list of potential partners to an exclusive, qualified few.
5. Decide whether you really need an RFP.
Lastly, before you issue an RFP, consider whether you really need to. Are you doing it because you’re bound to a procurement process? Is it because that’s how you think clients and agencies find one another? There’s increasing resistance out there to the RFP process from agencies and social change organizations alike who recognize it may not be the most efficient or effective way of identifying a partner.
Having been on both sides of the equation, I’m officially anti-RFP. (Stay tuned for a future rant…) Social organizations spend far too much time creating RFPs and feeling compelled to explain the entire background of the project and every lofty goal they hope to achieve. And, as I’ve noted, good agencies are likely to challenge your assumptions and want to dig deeper to develop their own understanding of the big picture. So is it really a good use of your time to develop a detailed list of needs and requirements, only to have your eventual partner put it aside?
Summing it up.
Regardless of your position vis-a-vis RFPs, be sure to focus on the quality of the conversations you have with potential design partners. Speak with them before you request a proposal — and after you receive it. Ask questions, invite questioning from the firms themselves, and try not to play your cards too close to your vest. After all, it’s the experts you end up working with and the process they bring with them that will determine the ultimate success of your project!
Over the last sixteen years I’ve learned that if there’s a word folks in the nonprofit community love to use to describe design firms, it’s vendor. Maybe it’s me, but every time I hear it used in conversation or read it in an RFP, the “V-word” brings with it the soothing sound of nails on a chalkboard.
“What’s the big deal?” you might be thinking. “Why should I care?”
Both good questions. The short answer is that if you work for a nonprofit and need to research and choose a design firm to lead your organization through a design engagement, “vendor” is symptomatic of a bigger problem. It suggests a misunderstanding of what design is. It shortchanges the value of good design and the value social change organizations can get from working with design firms. And it can damage the kind of relationship any client would want to build when working with one.
Sounds serious! But if I’m overstating the case, I’m only overstating it slightly.
To understand what’s so troubling about putting the “vendor” label on design firms, it’s helpful to deconstruct the term. Take a look again at the definition at the top of this article. Pretty uninspiring, right? By definition, a vendor doesn’t provide insight or strategic value. Vendors have customers, not clients. (Does anyone want to be transactionally treated by a strategic partner as a customer?). At best, vendors are trying to sell you something—usually a commoditized product or service. At worst, the thing they are trying to sell you is a lemon.
So why is vendor so often used in the nonprofit sector to describe the companies that play such a critical role in translating organizational strategy into tangible experiences?
I don’t believe it’s because anyone is intentionally minimizing the value that design firms bring to the table. (If anything, the case for strategic communications in the sector is on the rise.) I believe it’s a subtle sign of a more widespread misunderstanding that can lead to missed opportunity.
Why Is Design So Misunderstood?
There’s a certain twentieth-century quality to vendor (postwar America’s twist on the nineteenth-century purveyor). It’s a convenient catchall for any company that provides a good or service. For much of the twentieth century, concepts like “brands” and “brand value” were still in their infancy, choices were fewer. Our ability to access choices was more limited. And strategic differentiation was therefore much less critical to success. In this world “vendor” was good enough to describe any company in the “posters & toasters” business.
It’s in this context that the traditional client/design firm relationship evolved. Clients had things that “needed designing” and reached out to design firms for help. Design firms were asked to add “beautification and decoration” to the ideas for products, advertising, and communications brought to them.
And for a while that worked just fine (well, fine enough).
In the twenty-first century, this simplistic view has been supplanted by a deeper understanding of what design is and what it can do. An increasingly complex world requires a greater ability to understand, empathize, synthesize, and translate ideas and systems into meaningful experiences that help us make sense of it all. At their best, brands are an integral part of strengthening our sense of identity and understanding. (Think tribes). In this context, design is a powerful, multi-faceted discipline that offers a unique combination of skills to connect us more meaningfully to the world. This paradigm shift is exemplified by the field of design thinking—now embraced by many as one of our best tools for solving “wicked” problems.
Change Is Hard!
Despite this shift in the client/design firm relationship, when it comes to branding and communications it’s my experience that the nonprofit sector lags the business world in understanding design’s role in achieving organizational goals. Without question many forward-thinking nonprofits—particularly social innovation organizations—have bucked the trend (If you’re with one, I’d love to meet…). But the sector’s historic aversion to the “B-word,” its tendency to underinvest in strategic communications, its reliance on consensus-driven processes, and the challenges faced when confronted by a major disruption in thinking all contribute to the glacial pace of change.
One tell-tale sign (you guessed it!) is the widespread characterization across the nonprofit sector of design firms as “vendors.” Another sign is the mystifying RFP process that keeps prospective partners at arm’s length and prescribes solutions before a design firm is engaged. Both are symptomatic of a mindset that emphasizes design’s more easily understood outcome (design as a noun), while underweighting the less tangible, more valuable problem solving process (design as a verb).
Unfortunately, a not-insignificant percentage of design firms reinforce this dynamic by either: 1) not having developed a mindset, culture, and practices that position them as a partner capable of thinking beyond deliverables; or by 2) not educating potential partners who may be less informed about the strategic value that design firms can provide. The result is mis-aligned expectations that lead to missed opportunities—and, in worst-case scenarios, flat-out frustration.
Now the good news!
Always Partners, Never Vendors
As I’ve discussed before, design firms and social impact organizations share a unique bond. And hopefully it’s clear what kind of relationship I believe we should have to create the greatest benefit, for each other and the world.
While there’s much we can do to develop more effective ways of working together, it’s my aim, with this article, to create one small behavioral change to help the process. As strong a signal as that single word vendor sends, I believe that simply replacing it with another word will put the the relationships between nonprofits and design firms on much more solid ground.
And that word, of course, is partner.
Partnership implies a relationship based on shared interests and mutual respect. It acknowledges that each party has something of value to share to learn from the other. And it embraces that the two parties are in it together.
And isn’t that what we all want and are looking for when we work with someone?
Kicking vendor to the curb and eliminating it from our lexicon is essential to changing the terms of engagement between nonprofits and design firms. And to creating a framework for collaboration that increases the social impact we can achieve together. So won’t you join me? Next time a colleague refers to a design firm as a vendor, politely correct him or her and explain that there’s a much better way to describe the people who help them advance social impact work.
I will thank you. And, more importantly, the world will thank you.