The Right (and Wrong) Way to Engage your Board and Staff in a Nonprofit Rebrand

9 min read

If you haven’t already noticed the changes, you will soon. Over the last ten years, a record number of nonprofits have renamed and rebranded, and this trend shows no signs of slowing.

Take, for example, the YMCA’s transition to The Y, America’s Second Harvest’s change to Feeding America and Child Abuse Prevention Services’ move to Child and Parent Services.

Each of these new names is more flexible, adaptive and inclusive than the first, and the same can be said of the brands behind the names.

This trend is directly tied to seismic shifts in nonprofit funding in the last decade. If you work in the sector, you know that most nonprofits have struggled to serve more people with fewer resources in recent years due to dwindling government funding, shifts in donor demographics and giving habits and increased competition from social enterprise. Many smart nonprofits have responded by thinking bigger (or at least more creatively) about their missions, and the smartest among them have also begun to think bigger about their brands and marketing.

This trend is not exclusive to large nonprofits, either. Together with our collaborators at Substance Strategic Visual Communications, we’ve recently led renaming and rebranding initiatives for organizations like Rape Victim Advocates and Teen Living Programs, both of which will reveal their new names and brands later this year. And for every organization that has renamed, there are dozens more that have kept their names but completely refreshed their brand identities. Here again, the driving force seems to be strategic shifts nonprofits are making to ensure their long-term sustainability. The current conditions in the sector require the development of nonprofit brands that can last and evolve as organizations scale and explore new ways to carry out their missions.

If your nonprofit brand isn’t well-suited to usher your organization’s mission into the uncertain future, it might be time to consider refreshing or completely revamping your image and identity. But before you go down this road, you need to be aware of the most common challenge that crops up during the rebranding process: internal discontent. Change is difficult, and most organizations face at least some pushback from their staff, their board, or both, during the rebranding process.

If your nonprofit brand isn’t well-suited to usher your organization’s mission into the uncertain future, it might be time to consider refreshing or completely revamping your image and identity. Click To Tweet

Fortunately, there is a right way and a wrong way to engage your board and staff in the rebranding process.

Imagine this. Your organization has just gone through its three-year strategic planning process. Like many of your peers, you’re managing to stay afloat and maybe you even experienced some growth over the last few years, but you’re worried about your organization’s long-term sustainability, and those fears bubbled to the surface during your strategic planning process. You identified some strategic initiatives intended to shore up your financial position, and you set goals around them. Maybe you’re going to start a social enterprise to generate revenue that will support your programs over the next few years. Perhaps you have new programs or an expansion to serve new groups in mind. Or maybe you have chosen to invest in a marketing and communications campaign that will help you reach new donors. Your existing donor base isn’t getting any younger, after all.

At some point in this process, someone on your strategic planning team identifies a problem. Your organization’s current brand is misaligned with the new initiatives you’ve envisioned and the new goals you’ve set. Maybe your name isn’t inclusive of the groups you now want to work with or the new services you want to provide, which is what happened with YMCA before it became the Y. Perhaps your name is still working just fine, but your visual identity or the way you’re talking about your work is out of date or ineffective. It doesn’t feels right to invest in a major marketing push or new donor acquisition effort with a brand you’re not proud of.

This is where the conversation often turns to renaming, rebranding, or at the very least, refreshing an existing brand. And this is where you have two choices: the wrong way, and the right way.

The Wrong Way to Approach a Nonprofit Rebrand

If you go the wrong way, someone on your leadership team will likely step up to lead the rebranding process, or perhaps it will get assigned to another very small, very insular team, like marketing. This team will probably keep the work quiet for awhile. You’ll reason that there’s no need to get your staff and board involved until you have something concrete to share, unless, of course, you need your board to approve funding for a branding firm. Even then, the team that is leading the rebrand will probably spend very little time and thought making the case for the board to fund the nonprofit rebrand. They’ll focus on how outdated your current brand image is and how much better others in your space are doing. They’ll neglect conversations about the alignment between your brand, your strategic plan, and the conditions your nonprofit is up against that call its long-term sustainability into question, which is what motivated this work in the first place.

The team leading the nonprofit rebrand will work “behind the scenes” with the firm you’ve chosen as your partner while everyone else at your organization carries on with their day-to-day work. The firm’s process will vary depending on who you hire and how much you invest, but it will likely include some sort of qualitative and/or quantitative research, resulting in brand concepts from which the team can choose or iterate. And after some (or maybe even a whole lot) of back and forth, someone will choose.

This is when things will really go off the rails. Now that you have a new brand concept you love, you’ll engage your board and staff, probably in that order. You’ll show them the new approach, fully convinced that they’ll be just as excited about it as you are, and some of them will be. But others, maybe even most, won’t take things so well. Some people won’t agree with the preferences you’ve already developed, and some won’t understand why you need to rebrand at all. Some may even feel that their role, their personal mission, or the struggle of the people you serve, is minimized with as a result of your nonprofit rebrand. They’ll blame the branding firm for doing poor work, and they’ll blame the leadership team for making bad decisions. You’ll go back to basics, educating staff and board members about the challenges that led you to embark on the rebrand in the first place, and the process that got you to where you are. You might even have to go back to square one, exploring new names, visual identity concepts and other brand elements for months now that your staff and board are involved. You might end up with the refreshed brand you were looking for, or you might end up nowhere at all, with too much internal pushback to make it worth the effort to see the nonprofit rebrand through. Either way, you’ll have lost a great deal of trust from your staff and a great deal of support from your board along the way.

The Right Way to Approach a Nonprofit Rebrand

If you go the right way, you’ll question the assumption that a rebrand or brand refresh is even needed before you begin any work. Even if your strategic plan seems to make the need abundantly clear, you’ll realize that a nonprofit rebrand is a big investment that goes far beyond the cost of the firm you’ll hire to carry out the work. You’ll proceed slowly and deliberately.

First, you’ll make the case for simply considering a nonprofit rebrand with your board and staff, pointing to findings from your strategic planning process and data from outside your organization. You’ll get buy-in to form an exploratory committee that includes members of your leadership team, board members with varying expertise, employees that represent the varied functions, levels and demographics of your nonprofit’s staff, volunteers, and even a few donors and program beneficiaries. You might even have a nomination process in which various departments can nominate someone to represent their team on the exploratory committee for the nonprofit rebrand.

You’ll engage a firm to lead this group through the process of exploring whether you need to update your brand at all, and what the implications of updating (or not updating) it are likely to be. They’ll use a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods to discover the path that makes sense for your nonprofit rebrand, and present the findings to your exploratory committee.The exploratory committee will study these findings, and together with the firm, present a condensed version to the rest of the board and staff, indicating recommended next steps. If a nonprofit rebrand is indeed deemed necessary, the work will continue only with the voices of all your stakeholders taken into account.

Your exploratory committee will continue to lead the process, and when your firm presents brand concepts, they’ll be the first to react. After their feedback has been taken into account, preferred concepts can be presented to broader groups of board and staff members, likely in a series of meetings small enough to allow for feedback. While you won’t arrive at a new brand that every single stakeholder from every single group is 100% in favor of, you won’t face anything like the friction that resulted from doing things the wrong way. Your staff, board and other stakeholders will feel engaged and heard, and even if they don’t understand the choices that are ultimately made, they’ll understand why you embarked on a rebrand and the process you used to make a decision. They’ll adapt, and before long, your new brand will become the new normal.

The biggest difference between the right way and the wrong way? Engagement. Your board and staff want to feel heard, and your nonprofit rebrand will be far less painful and more effective if you’re actually willing to listen.

Your board and staff want to feel heard, and your nonprofit rebrand will be far less painful and more effective if you’re actually willing to listen. Click To Tweet

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