Nonprofit Branding 2.0 – What Today’s Forward-Thinking Nonprofits are Doing to Build Their Brands

8 min read

The nonprofit sector is in the midst of a major transformation in its approach to brand.

Organizations of all shapes and sizes are beginning to think more broadly than they ever have before about the strategic purpose their brands can serve.

The old nonprofit branding paradigm treated brand as a tool for fundraising. Brands were about building visibility and awareness among target audiences in order to drive financial support. Plain and simple.

But today’s most innovative nonprofits are recognizing that this thinking is far too narrow.

They’re moving to a new nonprofit branding paradigm that recognizes brand as a tool for driving internal cohesion and capacity, mission advancement and social impact.

The organizations that are embracing this new mindset are already realizing extraordinary results, from improved staff performance to increased revenue.

Let’s take a look at three diverse examples—an international aid organization, a federated membership organization, and a local aging services nonprofit—to see how they’re embracing the new brand paradigm and explore the outcomes they’re realizing as a result.

Opportunity International: Brand as a Tool for Mission Advancement

When Vicki Escarra stepped into the role of CEO at Opportunity International in 2012, she had just concluded a rebrand for Feeding America. The effort spurred the organization’s greatest period of growth in its 30+ year history and led to a 50 percent expansion in the number of hungry people Feeding America serves weekly.

But could Escarra achieve similar results for Opportunity International? The organization, which provides microloans and other financial services to women in developing countries, was starting from a far weaker position from a branding perspective than Feeding America.

“We’re a 42-year-old organization that’s distributed more than 21 million loans at a value of about $6 billion. We’ve created 10 million jobs in the last 15 years. But we’re relatively unknown as far as key stakeholders are concerned,” Escarra explained to Devex shortly after joining Opportunity International. “Although we’re known very well to the finance community, we knew it was essential to rebrand. The internal audience really didn’t know what we stood for and the external audience didn’t understand the life-changing, transformative work Opportunity was doing.”

This problem was due to a lack of cohesion among Opportunity International’s five global offices (Australia, Canada, the United States, Germany and the U.K), each of which operated as its own independent entity, and a common belief among them that the Opportunity International brand existed primarily for fundraising purposes.

Escarra knew this approach was misguided, and aimed to refocus Opportunity International’s brand on mission advancement.

“Any brand clearly needs to represent a promise to clients, donors and partners — as well as align around what the organization’s goal and missions are,” she explained.

She immediately began to drive Opportunity International’s brand toward that standard. She led the organization through a reassessment of its mission, vision and values with the goal of aligning each of those items with Opportunity’s strategic goals and with the needs and perspectives of the diverse communities and cultures the organization serves.

She then rolled Opportunity International’s five distinct entities into one global organization united around the same strategy, mission, messaging and branding. This unification made it possible for Opportunity International to improve its approach to social performance measurement, and allowed the organization to introduce 16 metrics around which they measure and report on their impact in key areas such as wages, education and health, all of which contribute to their mission.

These changes transformed Opportunity International’s brand into far more than a tool for fundraising and revenue generation. It became a powerful force for alignment around a shared mission and made it possible to measure mission impact.

The organization increased the number of clients served by 21 percent between 2014 and 2015, and also made the strategic decision to transition the operation of its banks to a FinTech partner so that they could better deliver on their core focus of helping women find a path out of poverty. This transition would not have been possible without the strong strategic foundation laid by the new Opportunity International brand.

The Y: Brand as a Tool for Social Impact

We hear a similar concern time and again from nonprofits that are considering improving their brands. They know they’re doing good work, but feel their wide range of services and offerings are not well-understood.

This is exactly the position the Y found itself in when the organization made the decision to rebrand. But unlike many nonprofits before them, they were operating with the new nonprofit brand paradigm in mind, and they knew that brand confusion was limiting far more than their fundraising abilities. It was also limiting their social impact.

The Y embarked on a two year research process to determine how its brand could evolve in order to maximize the organization’s impact. As part of the process, they surveyed a cross section of Americans about the greatest challenges they felt their communities were currently facing, and found that the Y could address many of their most pressing needs. However, most people surveyed had a very limited understanding of the organization’s ability to help them improve their community and quality of life. This led to an underutilization of the Y’s programs and services, and kept Y locations across the country from achieving their true potential to serve as a force for good in their communities.

“We are changing how we talk about ourselves so that people better understand the benefits of engaging with the Y,” said Kate Coleman, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of YMCA of the USA explained at the time of the rebrand.  “We are simplifying how we describe the programs we offer so that it is immediately apparent that everything we do is designed to nurture the potential of children and teens, improve health and well-being and support our neighbors and the larger community.”

After simplifying their name (from YMCA to simply the Y) and unveiling a new logo and refreshed visuals, the Y launched a series of national communications campaigns to bring their new brand to life.

You might remember their “Places” and “Idle Hands” campaigns, or the Zoe for President ads that launched during last year’s election season. These campaigns are a great illustration of the Y’s newly simplified brand and are highly effective at communicating the organization’s broad range of services and its deep social impact.

So far, the approach is paying off. Since launching their new brand, the Y has expanded evidence-based programs designed to close the Achievement Gap, launched its first nationwide fundraising and positioning campaign and advanced strategies designed to help Y Staff and volunteers develop the competencies needed to deliver on the Y’s cause of strengthening rapidly changing communities.  

CMSS: Brand as a Tool for Internal Alignment

Large, national nonprofits aren’t the only ones embracing the new nonprofit brand paradigm. Innovative local organizations like our client Chicago Methodist Senior Services (CMSS) are also beginning to see the broader strategic utility of a strong brand.

Large, national orgs aren’t the only ones embracing the new nonprofit brand paradigm. Click To Tweet

Last year, the desire to establish differentiation in the ultra-competitive senior care market led the 118-year-old nonprofit to embark on a rebranding process in partnership with Simple Truth. But once the process began, CMSS recognized that their internal brand challenges were in some ways greater than their external ones. The organization operates four different communities, each of which was functioning as its own mini-organization with its own messaging, internal communications practices and focus. Employees felt a strong affinity to the building they worked in, but the affinity to the organization as a whole was often weaker. Even more problematic, many employees did not have a solid understanding of the wide range of programs and services the organization offered, which made it difficult for CMSS to help individuals move through its continuum of care.

The new CMSS brand was therefore developed with a strong emphasis on improving internal cohesion, while at the same time improving external perceptions of the organization.

The new CMSS brand focuses on the brand platform “caring for life” and leans heavily on the following “ways of being” statements:

Be there.

Share the love.

Deliver our best.


These statements are intended to give staff across all communities, programs and services a framework through which to live out the new CMSS brand and exhibit the organization’s values and mission in their day-to-day work.

This brand platform, coupled with a completely refreshed voice and visual expression, have given the organization’s diverse range of staff and volunteers something to rally around and align themselves to. They also put the organization in the position to develop and distribute its first ever system-wide internal communications plan, a process that we supported earlier this year.

Though CMSS is still in the early phases of rolling out its new brand, its impact is already becoming apparent. Many employees are showing a greater enthusiasm for their work and an improved understanding of CMSS’ range of programs and services.

How can your organization move toward the new nonprofit brand paradigm?

The new nonprofit brand paradigm requires a new vocabulary, framework and set of guiding principles. Simply applying for-profit brand methodologies that focus on revenue generation and visibility is not adequate. As Nathalie Kylander & Christopher Stone  suggest in their research for Stanford Social Innovation Review, we need to start thinking about nonprofit branding in terms of brand integrity, brand democracy, brand ethics, and brand affinity  in order to build nonprofit brands that play a strategic role in internal alignment, mission advancement and social impact. Over the next several weeks, we’ll break that framework down and show you how to apply it at your organization.

If you’re eager to get started now, download our free resource, The New Nonprofit Brand Scorecard, to see how your nonprofit brand stacks up in terms of integrity, democracy, ethics and affinity.

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