06/06/2011 04:03 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2011

Branding Nonprofits in the Digital Age

Once upon a time, branding a product or a nonprofit was wonderfully easy. You created a brochure, or a direct mail piece, complete with pictures and an interesting chart or two, and sent it out. Or you made a PSA with the help of a willing commercial producer and ran it on television and played it for perspective donors.

As they say, those were the days.

Today, nonprofits and causes who attempt to brand from above and follow the mantra of 'we know what we are doing, give us money' collide full force with the modern world of technology, access to information and, in fact, the whole world of new media.

It started and is most clearly associated with movements like Charity Navigator. Instantly, a potential donor could look behind the curtain of a nonprofit and see details on spending and work. It might not seem like much, but just like potential voters used to have to go to the library to see how their elected official voted, the instant access to information means instant decision making.

It goes much further than that of course. So much further that this weekend I was introduced by The New York Times to "Carlson's Law," which has applications to the nonprofit world.

"... 'Carlson's Law,' posited by Curtis Carlson, the C.E.O. of SRI International, in Silicon Valley, which states that: 'In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.' As a result, says Carlson, the sweet spot for innovation today is 'moving down,' closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate."

From a nonprofit branding point of view, here's how I see the application of this law.

It's no longer enough to say you are going to do something, you have to show what you are doing. You have to engage with your constituency in a real collaborative manner, not the usual "will you sign my petition online?" mode. You have become engaged in a way that is uncomfortable for a traditional group and you have to understand that the knowledge and power you once held tightly onto is now available to a lot of people outside your four walls.

If you do this, you will succeed. But if you don't, Carlson's Law has another important warning for you. Take the millions of Americans who are interested in the environment and climate change. If they don't see that the legacy groups are effectively fighting the battle, they now have the tools and technologies they need to organize and push change themselves.

Work with your supporters and brand yourself with them for success. Ignore your supporters and brand top down at your peril.