Protecting the Nonprofit Brand

05/07/2015 12:35 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

Around the world, the image of a red soda can with a white ribbon is immediately recognized as the brand image for only one company: Coca-Cola. McDonald's "Golden Arches," Nike's Swoosh, Starbucks' green Siren, Mercedes' three-pointed star and NBC's rainbow Peacock are just a few more iconic logos with instant brand association. For organizations large and small, one image or one word can convey a whole world of meaning. A company's history, its products and its reputation are all built, promoted and maintained in its brand.

In the for-profit world, the importance of brand is readily understood. Consumers and executives, alike, recognize the power of brand loyalty and companies are continually looking for ways to strengthen it.

For nonprofit organizations, brand identity and loyalty is equally important. And yet, charities are often challenged when they create, license and protect the first -- and often most lasting -- impression of their work: their logo, tagline and mission.

Why is that?

A primary reason is that the prevailing view of charities is that they should not operate using business principles. As I've written about before, it is thought to be wrong for charities to invest in their infrastructure, fundraising, operational activities and their brand. Yet those very investments and activities are what enable charities to grow their programming and scale their impact.

Trademarks distinguish one nonprofit from another -- they set apart those with similar aims, as well as those charities that have divergent goals. They help both donors and recipients of services quickly and accurately judge the breadth and quality of programming and the overall credibility of an organization.

All nonprofits have a responsibility -- and a right -- to protect their registered marks from infringement and misuse. As both a veterans service organization and a trademark owner, Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) takes this commitment to our brand and our services seriously. This is an obligation we have to our warriors and their families -- to be there for a lifetime. And, unfortunately, that occasionally means taking action to protect the goodwill associated with our trademark.

When a nonprofit called Wounded Warriors Family Support had changed its name and marketing to appear more like Wounded Warrior Project and had willingly cashed checks intended for WWP, we took the case to federal court where a jury decided, and an appellate court confirmed, the organization had engaged in deceptive trade practices and benefited from unjust enrichment as a result of confusion. In other words, they knowingly took money donors intended to go towards our programs and services.

Similarly, this was also the case with Keystone Wounded Warriors. The group started out solely as a fundraiser to benefit Wounded Warrior Project, but ultimately decided to change direction and keep future funds raised for themselves. Unfortunately, they continued to use our name and image, creating confusion and suggesting they were still supporting WWP, long after they ceased fundraising for us. On top of this, during our conversations to amicably resolve the situation, Keystone outrageously asked Wounded Warrior Project for $150,000 to cover the costs of their own rebranding, more than two-thirds of the organization's overall budget.

Of course, this is not to say all instances of trademark infringement are nefarious in their intention. Even the most well-meaning organization can misuse names or logos and cause confusion around a brand.

Take, for example, the suit filed by the Alzheimer's Foundation of America against the Alzheimer's Association. A Chicago Tribune article reports that this dispute actually began back in 2007 when the Foundation alleged that funds from a Virginia woman's estate intended for the Foundation were mistakenly being sent to and deposited by the Association. Superficially, the error may seem minimal to some given that both organizations serve Alzheimer purposes. However, the Foundation's "mission is to provide care and services to people with dementia and their caregivers" while the Association is "focused on research for a cure." This could make all the difference when a donor decides where to give.

Nonprofits cannot pick and choose when to defend their organizational identity. If a charity lets one issue slide, they may lose their ability to protect their name when the violation is intentional and deceitful.

As a veterans services organization that now serves over 70,000 warriors and their families, WWP, in particular, does not have the luxury to be selective in protecting our image. We stand by our name and our brand day in and day out because we owe it to the Wounded Warriors whom we work to honor and empower.

And the same applies for so many other nonprofit organizations. We would never ask another nonprofit to waive its trademarks and licenses -- because we understand just how critical those are to performing meaningful and impactful work.

The same copyright and trademark laws that are so widely understood and respected in the for-profit world must hold true for nonprofits. We rely on our brand -- on the goodwill built among donors and the trust established in our populations -- to make a real difference to those who need it most.