03/29/2013 04:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Nonprofit Brands in the Age of Supporter Shift (Part 4)

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.

We've already established that branding is a verb, not a singular campaign that can be "finalized."

To make matters even more complex, nonprofits aren't just faced with differentiating their brands as they mature. They're also faced with making them relevant to several generations.

At the core of relevancy is the basic understanding that the audience for the brand really matters, not the other way around. In an age of supporter shift, nonprofits must figure out how to make their brand promise relevant to different generations that have varying wants, needs and perspectives:


It's tempting to meet the challenge by deciding to have different brands for different groups. But at its heart, a good brand is a unifying force, offering a promise that is high enough to provide shelter to everyone.

The Salvation Army offers us a timely example of an organization that has taken on the challenge of refreshing its brand, in large part to increase donor loyalty and improve the donor experience. Founded in the Victorian era, The Salvation Army is one of the world's most well-known nonprofits, recognized as #2 on a ranking of the top 100 nonprofit brands.

Being a well-known, longstanding brand in the market isn't always an easy thing. With it, comes the baggage of history that seeps into how people think and operate. In a very real sense, the work The Salvation Army has done with its brand has made the organization relevant for a new, younger audience while keeping hold of positive memories and good feelings held by older generations.

The unifying force for this work, which also involved updating operations and enabling immediate customer response through the strategic use of technology, was a new promise - "Doing the Most Good." It helped to clarify what the organization is about today and to establish a brand personality to which donors of all ages can relate. Beyond the brand itself are the experiences the organization is offering for people to engage. The Red Kettle campaign, something we identify with the holiday season, continues, but it does so both on Main Street and online. And newer efforts, like a rather impromptu Jonas Brothers concert, held at a shopping mall in Los Angeles, are showing that the organization isn't just relevant to younger audiences, it's becoming a part of their social networks and experiences. The concert, which was produced with donated services, was attended by 2,000 people and watched online by another 18,000. Those 20,000 people now have a reason to say The Salvation Army means something to them -- and an outlet for them to join in the cause of "Doing the Most Good."

We know that it's much easier to offer overarching advice than it is to make changes within an organization. So, as someone who is invested in a nonprofit in one way or another, a logical first step in your branding journey is to touch base with the people the organization serves and its supporters to learn what they think of the organization and what it does to develop a branding baseline. And, while you're thinking and planning, remember that small steps matter just as much as big ones. Here's a parting thought from marketing strategist, David Meerman Scott:

If you care about your brand, your organization, make sure you use real photographs of real people doing real mission-related work on your website, in your ad campaigns, in your materials. Don't cop out and use stock photos. Be real. After all, that's where branding begins - with a true sense of who you are, what you do, why you matter.

Download the full paper that inspired the Nonprofit Brands in the Age of Supporter Shift blog series.