The Case for Engaging Diverse Stakeholders in Developing Your Nonprofit’s Brand

Who “owns” your organization?

This question is not nearly as straightforward in the nonprofit world as it is in the for-profit world. 

The short answer is the organization’s many diverse stakeholders. 

Here’s how Judith E. Millesen explained the unique dynamics surrounding nonprofit ownership in Nonprofit Quarterly:

“We all know that although a corporate board of directors may have multiple constituencies to whom it is answerable, its primary accountability is to the firm’s ownership, which has been explicitly defined as the corporation’s shareholders. What this means is that it is the board’s responsibility to make sure that owner interests are safeguarded whenever decisions are made.

Contrast this fairly straightforward definition of ownership to what I call the ‘dual ownership’ in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit boards have both a legal responsibility to discharge a public benefit purpose and an ethical obligation to meet the expectations of those on whose behalf the organization exists. This means that nonprofit boards are accountable to both a legal ownership and an ethical, or moral ownership. By law nonprofit ownership is vested in the community, which has granted it certain exemptions and entrusted it with scarce resources to serve a particular social need.”

In our world, this then raises another question: who “owns” your nonprofit’s brand? Who “owns” the way your organization shows up in the world?

Here again, the short answer is the organization’s many diverse stakeholders.

Why, then, do many organizations develop their brands in an insular manner that involves only their leadership and board, or at best a few members of their staff?

This happens because involving a complete, representative group of your organization’s stakeholders in developing your brand is complex and challenging. It requires an immense amount of time, coordination and consideration of competing viewpoints. But it’s ultimately completely worth it.

To explain why, I’d like to share one example of an organization that engaged only its staff and board in the development of its brand, and then illustrate how that same organization could have benefitted from engaging a more representative, diverse and expansive group of stakeholders.

Stakeholder Engagement in Brand: The Wrong Way

A longstanding nonprofit made the decision to go through a rebrand after many years of discussion in board meetings and leadership team planning sessions about how the organization’s mission had outgrown its name and identity. The organization had historically worked with people currently experiencing homelessness, but in recent years, its services had expanded to include other groups at risk of experiencing homelessness, including teen mothers, individuals experiencing drug and alcohol addiction, and individuals experiencing long-term unemployment or underemployment. Several members of the organization’s board and leadership team felt their current brand was limiting the way donors understood their work and therefore limiting their ability to grow funding and support.

The organization contracted a branding firm to solve this problem. The board and staff felt sure that a change was needed, and they wanted it to happen as quickly and affordably as possible, so the branding firm cut corners. They held listening sessions to understand where the organization was currently and where it was looking to go, but those listening sessions involved only the leadership team and board members who had called for the rebrand to happen in the first place. These folks were well-intentioned, but their perspectives were limited. Only one member of the leadership team had ever experienced homelessness herself, and she was far removed from that experience. Several members of the board had no direct contact with the individuals the organization aimed to serve, and none were actively volunteering with the organization outside of their roles on the board or on staff. The insights that the branding firm was able to gain were inherently biased by these limitations.

When the branding firm unveiled options for the organization’s new name and visual identity, these options were based on the perspectives of a select few, not the collective many. The leadership team and board quickly selected a new brand that they felt better explained the expanded scope of their mission, and they excitedly rolled it out to staff, volunteers, program participants, donors, and their broader community.

The response was far from positive. While some donors felt the new brand was compelling and said they gained a new understanding of the organization’s expanded scope, many staff members, program participants and volunteers felt the organization was “walking away” from individuals currently experiencing homelessness by deemphasizing that work in the new brand and expanding its focus to populations that were “easier to work with.” Volunteers who had been inspired by the organization’s “hardcore, boots on the ground, front lines” approach to tackling homelessness worried the organization was becoming “too soft,” and said they felt less inspired to stay involved. Even more alarmingly, many of the organization’s program participants took issue with the way they were represented in the organization’s new marketing materials that were rolled out with the rebrand. They felt the organization was stereotyping those experiencing homelessness in its choice of imagery and language and painting a false picture of hopelessness in order to “pull on donor heartstrings.”

Unfortunately, we see situations like this all the time. Well-intentioned boards and leadership teams can easily send their organizations astray simply by failing to engage their diverse stakeholders in the development of their brands.

Stakeholder Involvement in Brand: The Right Way

Now, imagine this same organization had approached its branding challenges in a more inclusive way that considered the perspectives and lived experiences of its many diverse stakeholders. Here’s what would have gone differently.

First, the leadership team and board would have sought other perspectives to confirm or deny their feeling that the organization needed to rebrand. They would have brought in a branding firm like ours to conduct what we call a “rebrand risks and rewards study.” During this process, we aim to understand the many stakeholders who are impacted by an organization and its brand. We also seek to gain their perspectives (through interviews and surveys) on where the organization and brand are today, and where they’re looking to go. This study creates opportunities to look at other similar organizations that have gone through rebrands and assess their results.

Then, if we collectively determined that a rebrand was in fact the best path for the organization, we would have developed a taskforce to lend input into the process and its outcomes. This taskforce would have included representation from all the organization’s many diverse stakeholder groups: board members, leadership team members, staff, volunteers, donors, people experiencing homelessness, people at risk of experiencing homelessness, program participants, and community members. We would have involved the members of this taskforce in every stage of the rebranding process, from initial research through to concepting, identity selection, and rollout. We would have positioned them as advocates for the process internally by asking them to communicate with other stakeholders in their circles about the process we had gone through together to arrive at the new brand and their involvement in determining the outcomes. Importantly, we wouldn’t have stopped involving this taskforce once the new brand launched. We would have involved them in reviewing marketing materials and messaging on an ongoing basis to ensure they felt their interests and identities were fairly represented.

The outcome would have been a brand that resonated more strongly with all the organization’s diverse stakeholders. This sort of stakeholder engagement would have helped groups like volunteers feel much more comfortable with the new brand and organizational direction, and may have minimized the feelings of misrepresentation and stereotyping among people experiencing homelessness.

It might have taken longer and been more difficult, but it would have been more inclusive, equitable, and ultimately, more successful.

How should your organization go about involving diverse stakeholders in developing its brand?

  • Begin by ensuring you understand who your stakeholders really are. Who owns your brand? Think not just about your board and leadership team, but also about your staff, volunteers, program participants, clients, donors, community members, elected officials, members and more.

  • Question your assumptions. Your leadership team and board is likely full of ideas about what your brand is and should become, but those ideas should always be tested through conversations with members of as many of your diverse stakeholder groups as possible.
  • Form a taskforce. A taskforce made up of a representative group of your stakeholders should be a requirement any time you’re going through major changes to your organization’s brand or approach to marketing and communications. These stakeholders can lend valuable input that shapes outcomes and help foster an understanding of where your brand is going among the groups they are part of. They can also help to ensure their identities and experiences are accurately represented in your messaging and marketing materials, which should be an important consideration for any organization that cares about avoiding stereotyping and advancing equity.

    This worksheet, which will help you identify your stakeholders, is a great place to start. If you’re struggling to navigate the complexities and challenges of involving your stakeholders in developing your nonprofit’s brand,
    get in touch. We’d love to help.