Instead, they are about how to leverage the Gates Foundation brand in the cause of greater public discourse and social impact.
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Although the ambitions of nonprofit brand managers are growing, the strategic frameworks and management tools available to them have not kept up. The models and terminology used in the nonprofit sector to understand brand remain those imported from the for-profit sector to boost name recognition and raise revenue. In this article, we describe a conceptual framework designed to help nonprofit organizations do just that. Building on previous work in the field, we conducted structured interviews with 73 nonprofit executives, communication directors, consultants, and donors in 41 organizations.
Then we analyzed these interviews to learn how leaders in the field are thinking about nonprofit brands today and how they see the role of brands evolving. The Nonprofit Brand IDEA emerged from the distinctive sources of pride that nonprofit leaders expressed in what they do—pride in the social mission, participatory processes, shared values, and key partnerships—and from the distinctive role that they said brand plays to create greater cohesion inside their organizations.
Before we explain the framework in more detail, it is important to be clear about what we mean by brand and how the use of brand is evolving. A decade ago, the dominant brand paradigm in the nonprofit sector focused on communications. Nonprofit executives believed that increased visibility, favorable positioning in relation to competitors, and recognition among target audiences would translate into fundraising success.
Branding was a tool for managing the external perceptions of an organization, a subject for the communications, fundraising, and marketing departments. Increasingly, branding is a matter for the entire nonprofit executive team. By now it should be clear that we are defining brand quite broadly.
A brand is more than a visual identity: the name, logo, and graphic design used by an organization. A brand is a psychological construct held in the minds of all those aware of the branded product, person, organization, or movement. Brand management is the work of managing these psychological associations. But the point in both cases is to take branding far beyond the logo. When we asked leading nonprofit practitioners, management scholars, and nonprofit brand consultants what a brand is, the responses were not any different from what those in other sectors might say.
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Some described brand as an intangible asset, and a promise that conveys who you are, what you do, and why that matters. Others felt that a brand captures the persona of an organization and represents its very soul or essence. Yet others identified brand in terms of not only what is projected but also what is perceived.
Last, brand was seen as a source of efficiency because it acts as a time-saving device, providing a shortcut in the decision making of potential investors, customers, clients, and partners. When we asked what a strong brand can bring to an organization, the similarity across sectors was again apparent. The trust that strong brands elicit also provides organizations with the authority and credibility to deploy those resources more efficiently and flexibly than can organizations with weaker brands. It should be no surprise that nonprofit executives define brand in for-profit language.
Business language is spreading in part because it is proving useful to nonprofit executives in communicating with board members and donors whose own roots are in the for-profit world, and because many of the people managing brands in the nonprofit sector have themselves come from for-profit businesses. Indeed, we were struck to find that the majority of the nonprofit brand managers we interviewed during our research had worked first in the commercial world. Even with this convergence between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, the nonprofit brand managers we interviewed said that brands do play distinctive roles in the nonprofit sector.
These differences relate to the role of brand in driving broad, long-term social goals, the role of brand inside nonprofit organizations, and the multiplicity of audiences that nonprofits must address. These differences may come down to questions of emphasis and focus, since brands in the for-profit world also contribute to long-term business purposes, play internal roles, and speak to multiple audiences. Still, we believe the greater weight given to these roles in the nonprofit sector is fundamental, rooted in the fact that each nonprofit advances a multiplicity of value propositions, irreducible to a single monetary metric, most of which can be advanced only if the other organizations in its field also succeed.
The Nonprofit Brand IDEA is based on two themes that we discovered during our research: the distinctive sources of pride that nonprofit leaders have in their organizations, and the distinctive roles that brand plays inside these organizations to create cohesion and build capacity. We turn first to the sources of pride.
Interestingly enough, the way that we identified the sources of pride was by first listening to nonprofit leaders express their skepticism about the role of branding in the nonprofit sector. It turns out that the old brand paradigm has produced a deep current of skepticism about branding within nonprofit organizations, making many nonprofit leaders ambivalent about both the concept of brand and the terminology of branding.
Although some branding professionals urge nonprofit leaders to push past this skepticism, we believe the skepticism suggests how nonprofit brands might be managed differently from their for-profit counterparts. Our interviews surfaced at least four legitimate sources of skepticism. First, many nonprofit leaders still widely associate branding with the commercial pursuit of monetary gain. Brand skeptics think of the premium prices that for-profit firms charge for brand-name products and worry that this elevation of brand over substance will debase their work.
They worry that the names of their organizations will be inflated beyond what the quality of their work alone would support, as the pursuit of revenue becomes a goal in its own right. The second source of skepticism is that brand management is sometimes seen as a top-down shortcut to avoid a participatory strategic planning process—an effort by top management to impose greater conformity in goals and priorities. Indeed, many people we interviewed drew contrasts between rebranding efforts and strategic planning. Because rebranding is usually staffed differently and organized with less participation than strategic planning, the new brand can feel peremptorily imposed from above.
These concerns can be especially great when a new leader initiates a rebranding as part of an aggressive effort to change the way an organization works. We also found a broader concern that branding was sometimes driven by values that are antithetical to the organization.
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Beneath both these examples lies distrust of the value that is motivating what might be an otherwise well-intended branding effort. When large nonprofits insist that joint activities conform to their idea of quality, brand management by the larger organization can feel to the weaker organization like bullying, and these bully brands give brand management a bad reputation.
Viewed more positively, each of these four strands of skepticism reveals a corresponding source of pride in the nonprofit sector: pride in the mission of an organization, pride in participatory planning, pride in the values that define organizational culture, and pride in supportive partnerships. The Nonprofit Brand IDEA builds on these four sources of pride, as well as on the distinctive role that brand plays in the nonprofit sector, to which we now turn.
Just as the brand skeptics led us to the four sources of pride, the brand enthusiasts we interviewed focused our attention on the important role that brand plays inside nonprofits to create organizational cohesion and build capacity. Many of our interviewees felt that a brand plays different roles with different audiences.
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Internally, the brand embodies the identity of the organization, encapsulating its mission, values, and distinctive activities. The result of alignment in mission, values, identity, and image is a clear brand positioning and increased cohesion among diverse internal constituencies. Because nonprofit organizations rely on establishing trust with many external audiences, doing what you say you do and being who you say you are is crucial. Strong cohesion and high levels of trust contribute to greater organizational capacity and social impact. A cohesive organization is able to make more efficient and focused use of existing resources, and high external trust attracts additional talent, financing, and authority.
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By leveraging the trust of partners, beneficiaries, and policymakers, an organization can make greater strides toward achieving its mission. On the flip side, those organizations that face challenges in terms of internal organizational coherence, or the erosion of trust held by external constituencies either because of scandals or misperceptions , struggle to build organizational capacity and impact. The role of brand within nonprofit organizations is therefore cyclical and can be captured in a model we call the Role of Brand Cycle. In this model, brand is nested within organizational strategy, which in turn is nested within the mission and values of the organization.
Brand plays a variety of roles that, when performed well, link together in a virtuous cycle. Nations gain factor-based comparative advantage in industries that make intensive use of the factors they possess in abundance. Classical theory, however, has been overshadowed in advanced industries and economies by the globalization of competition and the power of technology. A new theory must recognize that in modern international competition, companies compete with global strategies involving not only trade but also foreign investment. What a new theory must explain is why a nation provides a favorable home base for companies that compete internationally.
The home base is the nation in which the essential competitive advantages of the enterprise are created and sustained. While the ownership of the company is often concentrated at the home base, the nationality of shareholders is secondary. A new theory must move beyond comparative advantage to the competitive advantage of a nation. It must reflect a rich conception of competition that includes segmented markets, differentiated products, technology differences, and economies of scale.
A new theory must go beyond cost and explain why companies from some nations are better than others at creating advantages based on quality, features, and new product innovation. A new theory must begin from the premise that competition is dynamic and evolving; it must answer the questions: Why do some companies based in some nations innovate more than others? Why do some nations provide an environment that enables companies to improve and innovate faster than foreign rivals?
These approaches, now much in favor in both companies and governments, are flawed.
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