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.

A growing number of nonprofits are developing a broader and more strategic approach to brand management, leverging their brands to create greater social impact and tighter organizational cohesion.

Everyone knows about a non-profit brand or two. Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, and World Wildlife Fund are some of the most widely recognized brands in the world, more trusted by the public than the best-known for-profit brands.

How non-profits are utilizing their brands is changing dramatically from the model we’ve come to expect. It’s no longer all about fundraising.

Many NPOs are moving to explore the wider, strategic roles that brands can play: driving broad, long-term social goals, while strengthening internal identity, cohesion, and capacity.

“We’re catalysts,” says Tom Scott, global director of brand and innovation for The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,  “Could we have greater impact if we leveraged our brand in different ways? What difference could it make to attach our logo to things to move conversations forward or elevate certain issues? Can we use our brand to elevate other brands?” The questions Scott asks aren’t about raising money. Instead, they are about how to leverage the Gates Foundation brand in the cause of greater social impact.


What is it and how can it help nonprofit organizations?

“IDEA” stands for brand integrity, brand democracy, brand ethics, and brand affinity.

The organizational framework is the result of an 18-month research project led by Sandford University, along with colleagues at Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations and collaborators at the Rockefeller Foundation. They conducted structured interviews with 73 nonprofit executives, communication directors, consultants, and donors in 41 organizations to learn how leaders in the field are thinking about nonprofit brands today and how they see the role of brands evolving.


A decade ago, nonprofit branding was a tool for managing the external perceptions of an organization, fundraising, and marketing departments.

In contrast, the emerging paradigm sees brand as having a broader and more strategic role in an organization’s core performance, as well as having an internal role in expressing an organization’s purposes, methods, and values. A strong brand is increasingly seen as critical in helping to build operational capacity, galvanize support, and maintain focus on the social mission.

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.

A brand is an intangible asset. It’s a promise that conveys who you are, what you do, and why that matters. A brand captures the persona of an organization and represents its very soul or essence. Last, but not least, a brand is a tool for efficiency because it acts as a time-saving device, providing a shortcut in the decision making of potential investors, customers, clients, and partners.

According to Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, “A strong brand allows you to acquire more resources and gives you the authority to have more freedom over how you use them.” Strong brands in all sectors help organizations acquire financial, human, and social resources, and build key partnerships. 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.

So, what are the major differences in the function of a brand in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors? While brand does play a distinctive role in the nonprofit sector, the major 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. However greater weight is given to these roles in the nonprofit sector. Each nonprofit advances a multiplicity of value propositions, most of which can be advanced only if the other organizations in its field also succeed. This is not necessarily true of the for-profit sector.

“Brand becomes critical when you’re seeking to create partnerships, when you’re seeking other funders, and when you’re looking to associate yourself with people in the field,” explains Diane Fusilli, a global brand consultant and former communications director at the Rockefeller Foundation. “A strong brand helps bring greater credibility and trust to a project quicker, and acts as a catalyst for people to want to come to the table.”


The Nonprofit Brand IDEA is based on two themes: The pride that nonprofit leaders have in their organizations, and the distinctive roles that brand plays inside these organizations to create cohesion and build capacity.

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.

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. 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.

Third, brand skeptics sometimes worry that a focus on branding is grounded in the vanity of an organization’s leadership rather than the needs of the organization. There is also a broader concern that branding is sometimes driven by values that are antithetical to the organization. “Campaigns like “save a slave” seem to exploit suffering or marginalization to grab people’s attention”. There is a distrust of the value that is motivating what might be an otherwise well-intended branding effort.

The fourth concern skeptics have, particularly in organizations that work regularly in coalitions and collaborations, is that one organization’s powerful brand will overshadow weaker brands, reinforcing, rather than correcting, imbalances of power among partners.

Turn it on its head, and you find that 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.


Just as the brand skeptics reveal the four sources of pride, the brand enthusiasts bring to light the important role that brand plays inside nonprofits to create organizational cohesion and build capacity.

Internally, the brand embodies the identity of the organization, encapsulating its mission, values, and distinctive activities. Pip Emery, who co-led the most recent global identity project at Amnesty International, puts it this way: “If you don’t know where you’re going and why you’re relevant, you don’t have a brand.” Externally, the brand reflects the image held in the minds of the organization’s multiple stakeholders, not just its donors and supporters but also those it seeks to influence, assist, or reach.

The result of alignment in mission, values, identity, and image is a clear brand positioning and increased cohesion among diverse internal constituencies. When an organization’s employees and volunteers all embrace a common brand identity, it creates organizational cohesion, concentrates focus, and reinforces shared values.

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. This increase in organizational capacity enhances an organization’s social impact. By leveraging the trust of partners, beneficiaries, and policymakers, an organization can make greater strides toward achieving its mission.

Brand plays a variety of roles that, when performed well, link together in a virtuous cycle.

“The Role of Brand Cycle”


The four principles of Nonprofit Brand IDEA are brand integrity, democracy, ethics, and affinity.

Brand integrity means that the organization’s internal identity is aligned with its external image and that both are aligned with the mission. Here we mean structural integrity, not moral integrity. Internally, a brand with high structural integrity connects the mission to the identity of the organization, giving members, staff, volunteers, and trustees a common sense of why the organization does what it does and why it matters in the world. Externally, a brand with high structural integrity captures the mission in its public image and deploys that image in service of its mission at every step of a clearly articulated strategy.

Brand democracy means that the organization trusts its members, staff, participants, and volunteers to communicate their own understanding of the organization’s core identity.

Brand ethics means that the brand itself and the way it is deployed reflect the core values of the organization. Just as brand integrity aligns the brand with mission, brand ethics aligns both the organization’s internal identity and its external image with its values and culture.

Brand affinity means that the brand is a good team player, working well alongside other brands, sharing space and credit generously, and promoting collective over individual interests. An organization with strong brand affinity attracts partners and collaborators because it lends value to the partnerships without exploiting them.


Nowhere is the practical value of brand integrity more evident than in the relationship of brand to an organization’s theory of change. At WWF, for example, part of the theory of change depends on the organization’s ability to persuade some of the biggest multinational corporations to enter into partnerships that lead the companies to change their business practices. WWF’s strong global brand is crucial to its ability to establish these partnerships. “You’re big, we’re big, so we understand each other,” as Emily Kelton, director of corporate relations at WWF US, puts it.

Brand democracy requires a fundamental shift in the traditional approach to brand management. Organizations aspiring to brand democracy do not police their brands, trying to suppress unauthorized graphics or other representations of the organization, but strive instead to encourage participation and interaction with the brand.

For brand democracy to produce a consistent image, however, requires strong organizational cohesion supported by a strong internal brand identity. Brand democracy is not brand anarchy. Organizations need to establish parameters for a brand, even if the space within these limits is large.

The practical implications of a commitment to brand affinity are especially clear in coalitions, where multiple organizations join in a common cause that has its own image and identity. Nonprofit leaders in such coalitions often worry that the collective identity will overshadow their own brand. The TckTckTck campaign, in contrast, deliberately allowed the brands of individual members to remain prominent. In this coalition, each organization retained its own identity and logo, which Christian Teriete, communications director for the Global Campaign for Climate Action, describes as a flotilla of ships with distinct brand flags. “Everybody [has] this little additional flag on the top mast that [has] the [coalition identity]. So, in a way, we are all different groups, but we are all united.”


In addition to providing a framework for nonprofit managers and organizational strategists to better manage their brands, the Nonprofit Brand IDEA may also prove useful in managing other tasks, such as board governance, global operations, and risk management.

Rather than asking how brand management is contributing to revenue, boards (like managers) are beginning to ask how the brand is aligned with the mission, values, and strategy of the organization. Most importantly, boards are asking about the role of the brand in enhancing operational capacity and driving social impact.

High brand integrity may, by strengthening internal cohesion and trust among partners, enable an organization to do more, which translates into a greater willingness to experiment, take risks, and drive innovation.

References: Stanford Social Innovations Review