03/01/2013 12:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Nonprofit Brands in the Age of Supporter Shift (Part 2)

In the Supporter Shift series, Blackbaud CEO Marc Chardon and outcomes guide Hal Williams continued their discussion about nonprofit results, exploring the effects of generational shift -- and a related shift in expectations. In this series, the authors return with a focus on the nonprofit brand, an essential ingredient in supporters' search for meaning.

In our last post, we began exploring the evolution of branding and its importance in the nonprofit sector.

So what exactly is a brand, that ethereal thing that is more concept than concrete? A brand is a promise, a point of view or as Kate Coleman, CMO of the YMCA of the USA, said a while back at the AMA Nonprofit Marketing Conference, "a discipline for how an organization acts and communicates."

To be clear, a brand is not a logo. It's also not an advertising play. And, it's not a nonprofit's mission. A mission is about what an organization offers and what it does. A brand is about what people get, the experience they receive, the promise that comes true when they interact with an organization. Although a nonprofit technically "owns" the brand within the organization, it's the customers (those it serves through programs and its supporters) who bring it to life. They're the ones who have the power to say whether (or not) the organization has lived up to the performance level it promised. In the end, the quality of a brand is determined by the promises made and the promises kept. A really great brand promise lets people know it is kept. If it's too vague or too abstract, it isn't real. Good branding moves someone from the abstract to the specific, proving what it said to be true. It's about deepening the promise.


So, back to that other kind of branding. A brand - a physical, registered mark - on a cow tells you that someone specific owns the animal. "This is our cow." In fact, brands in the cattle industry were an early form of copyrighting, a way to "register" an animal and show ownership. Cattle owners would literally take their brands to an office where they would have to prove that their symbols were unique in order to have them registered and recorded. The key was that you had to be able to tell the difference when you looked at the actual cow. "That's Harvey's cow, not John's."

Making the leap to current day branding in the marketing sense, the focus is similar - it's about telling the difference, getting the uniqueness. Many nonprofit missions or visions, which organizations tend to rely on as unique identifiers in place of their brands, often aren't unique at all. Imagine an organization grazing freely on an open range with dozens of other nonprofits like them. It's a herd. Together, they look the same. When people get close to a nonprofit with a truly effective brand, it is easy to tell how it is different, unique and deserving of their support.