Case Study: How branding can take an NGO from a part-time hobby to a professional organisation
The other day, I was scrolling through my LinkedIn feed and came across a simple text-post by an organisation advertising that they were looking for volunteers to teach computer literacy skills to migrant women and women of minority backgrounds. The concept for these types of classes is great: it’s targeting an often forgotten and marginalised group in society, and would help bridge the digital gender divide.
The organisation, which I won’t name, is doing important work, but I don’t think they’ll have nearly as much success as other organisations with the same mission. Why? They had virtually no branding.
A forgettable logo, a name that does not connote the work they’re doing, a boring social media presence with no consistency in their messaging nor any visual identity across their channels. It seemed to be someone’s side-hobby, not a professional organisation.
Unfortunately, this is one of the big pitfalls that nonprofits can fall into: forgetting about branding. It’s understandable that nonprofits (especially new ones) often struggle with a lack of funding and focus more on the day-to-day operations before establishing a brand identity, but it’s important to remember how branding can help an organisation achieve its goals.
Case Study: ReDI School
Let’s take a look at the ReDI School of Digital Integration. ReDI School’s objectives are similar to the aforementioned organisation, teaching computer skills to migrant women and women of minority backgrounds. Their mission is ambitious and admirable: to ‘use tech to connect human potential and opportunity with dignity & humility’. The most impressive and exciting thing? They are really succeeding. Founded in Berlin in 2016, ReDI School has now grown to include 5 locations over 2 countries and even spread to online teaching, in just 4 years. They have almost 50 full- and part-time employees, and have taught over 3,000 students with over 40+ nationalities. They’ve been featured and praised in CNN, Forbes, TedX, Bloomberg, and many other places. This definitely isn’t just a hobby project started by the founder and managing director Anne Kjær Bathel; it’s a large organisation impacting thousands of lives on a daily basis. It has become a pillar in the migration-related nonprofit sphere in Germany and Denmark.
Of course, you can’t chalk all this success up to just branding. I’ve volunteered with ReDI School in Copenhagen and saw first-hand how much the team works, how they are not only very competent in the subject but also passionate about helping women. But the point here is that other organisations also have hard-working and competent teams, but nevertheless experience roadblocks and hurdles along so much of the way.
Branding won’t turn an organisation into the next Amnesty International overnight, but it can definitely streamline the path.
What is a very obvious difference (at least visually) between ReDI School and other similar, but less successful, organisations? ReDI is a brand. Branding won’t turn an organisation into the next Amnesty International overnight, but it can definitely streamline the path.
What is Branding?
‘Branding’ is sometimes a confusingly vague term, but it’s really an umbrella that includes many things that a lot of nonprofits already have: a logo, some favoured colours, the tone and voice on a website and social media, and even the fonts and colors used. It goes beyond just the visual, though. To have a successful ‘brand’, you must first deeply know yourself and your work. Having a core purpose and clear messaging about how you reach your goals is vital in sharing your work with the world. Branding = identity. What is your organisation’s identity? Is your organisation easily identifiable by the world?
ReDI School has definitely built a brand, an identity. Their colors are bright, welcoming, memorable—which was all very intentionally done. Their logo is easily identifiable and it’s on everything. They always use the same fonts; their website and social media are consistent; even their name implies the work they do. ReDI’s messaging is clear across all platforms. So, what does that help with?
Branding is extremely important for organisations and companies across all sectors, but the benefits of strong branding in the nonprofit sector are quite compelling.
Branding helps to streamline and increase efficiency
Edvantage Strategy Group interviewed “leading nonprofit practitioners, management scholars, and nonprofit brand consultants [about] what a brand is,” and, in addition to receiving answers such as a ‘promise’ and a ‘persona’, they were told that a brand is “a source of efficiency because it acts as a time-saving device, providing a shortcut in the decision making of potential investors, customers, clients, and partners.”
Creating a brand is like creating a framework. You have a structure in place to fall back on. Not sure how to write something for your website? What does your brand guide say about voice and tone? Not sure what color to make your social media post? Check the brand guide. Have you lost track of your larger goals in the midst of your day-to-day operations? Well, your branding can help get you back on track. Not sure when to use which font, which version of your logo? Check the brand guide.
Branding builds trust
Let’s return to the first organisation mentioned, the one without the brand, that seems like someone’s hobby. Why is that bad? Hobbies are fun! Well, a hobby doesn’t help you gain people’s trust. Depending on what kind of work a nonprofit does, you may lose out on valuable connections if you lack trust. Donor funding, individual donations, collaboration opportunities, social media engagement, awareness and reputation… all of these things can be negatively impacted by a lack of trust.
“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,” according to Nathalie Kylander & Christopher Stone in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
Branding isn’t dirty
A lot of people in the nongovernmental sector probably agree with the statement that having a logo and some basic guidelines is important, but worry that having ‘a brand’ might be too corporate, that they are trying to sell something instead of focusing on making an impact. That’s understandable, as most of the big brands that we know, companies like Apple and Google, are definitely profiting from their brand. However, it’s just as important—and definitely not ‘dirty’—for nonprofits to invest their time and effort into building a cohesive brand.
According to Ideas on Purpose, “While nonprofits aren’t selling a product or a service in the transactional sense, they are ‘selling’—their ideas, their goals and their vision of a better future—persuading to attract funding, board members, volunteers, attention, and political impact. The succinct messaging and coherent visual identity developed during a thoughtful branding exercise allows more effective communication of purpose.”
It’s never too late to get on board with branding
Branding is an extremely important part of any company or organisation’s structuring process, but if you missed that step, it’s never too late to fix it! Some organisations may opt to completely change their brand when going through a big transition as a way to externally reflect the changes happening internally. While this is definitely a great point to rethink your brand identity, it’s not the only opportunity you have to make some updates.
Maybe your organisation started off with a handmade logo that doesn’t represent the level of professionalism you’ve since reached. Maybe you have been posting inconsistently on social media and now want to create a communications plan to reach more audiences. Maybe your website is outdated or nonfunctional. Maybe you feel lost in terms of your goals and next steps. These are all pieces that fall under the umbrella of branding, and it’s a wise decision to see them as such instead of trying to ‘fix’ each piece individually. Even if things are running smoothly, consider how an exercise in internally aligning your goals, strategies, and visual identity might help your organisation reach new heights.
In 2021, I will be writing several blog posts in a series about branding and other communications for nonprofits. If you are curious to learn more, I will be posting them on my portfolio website and LinkedIn. If you are interested in learning how branding can help your organisation, please reach out for a free consultation.