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You'll Know a Breakthrough Nonprofit Brand When You Experience It

By: Carol Cone and Kristian Darigan Merenda

If you’re a nonprofit in the United States, could you achieve your goals with an audience of just 215 people?

As of January 1, 2022, the U.S. population was estimated at 332.4 million. In 2016, there were 1.54 million nonprofits registered in the United States. That leaves an average of 215 U.S. citizens for every nonprofit operating, generating intense competition for the resources that help achieve their purpose.

A 2021 survey of nonprofits by the Federal Reserve System found that three-quarters of responding nonprofits said that demand for their services had increased, but 45% were unable to meet those demands. Making matters worse, the study found that the impact of COVID drove expenses up for 75% of respondents, staffing down for 40%, and individual giving significantly down for 75% of nonprofits.

Branding is the process of creating a clear, consistent message about your organization, along with a set of experiences, so that people identify with its potential programs and services in the way that you want them to. In a world where resources are limited and American consumers are exposed to upwards of 10,000 messages a day, how does a nonprofit break through the clutter and noise to achieve its goals?

While there are many innovative and cutting-edge tactical approaches, the core of how a nonprofit brand (or any brand for that matter) breaks through is in how they walk and talk – namely how your target audience experiences your purpose.

Becoming a breakthrough nonprofit brand requires the backing of senior leadership where brand meaning becomes the catalyst for continual self-assessment and innovation. In order to do that, there needs to be a shift in thinking to ensure that what you stand for is delivered through every stakeholder interaction.

Here are the top 8 things we’ve identified to shift from a traditional nonprofit brand to become a breakthrough nonprofit brand and cut through the noise to achieve your purpose.

1. Shifting from appearance to idea: Traditional thinking equates a brand to a look, logo, or language often expressed through regular campaigns. Breakthrough nonprofit brands align their branding and all its expression with a higher cause by creating understanding (attracting the head), connecting emotionally (appealing to the heart), and allowing for multiple entry points (engaging the hands).

A leader in pediatric cancer research and treatment, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has clearly aligned its branding and expression with its cause: ‘Finding Cures. Saving Children.’ Its connection to its patients and their stories is felt by potential and existing donors and volunteers, expertly forging an emotional appeal to its cause, with a multitude of volunteering roles and fundraising opportunities to get involved.

2. Shifting from communicating activities to benefits: Breakthrough nonprofits invite supporters to experience their brand meaning in action, creating emotional connections through a “what’s in it for you” mentality.

Kiva is a great example of this, an organization working to expand financial access – in part, through its digital crowdfunding marketplace. Using Kiva’s platform, individuals can explore powerful stories from borrowers around the globe to find an entrepreneur or cause they connect to most. With as little as $25, lenders can watch their small loan help borrowers achieve their goals, creating significant and personal impact across the world.

3. Shifting from transactions to relationships: Traditional marketers focus on annualized numbers and statistics. Breakthrough nonprofits will work to create mission-aligned donor experiences as a way to build long-term relationships that deepen over time with meaning.

While The Only One Collective does boast its outstanding fundraising and impact numbers, the organization emphasizes individual participation for collective action. Monthly membership plans make it possible to fund real-world impact for the planet and ocean, with every cent donated tracked back to the field. Donors can track the impact of their dollars using geo-location, photos from the field, and unique identifiers to see each tree, coral, kilogram of plastic, and gram of carbon reduction they fund.

4. Shifting from being well known to well owned: Mass awareness is helpful, but it does not lead to loyalty. The most successful breakthrough nonprofit brands distribute power and promote mutual ownership for creative engagement with them.

As the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people, The Trevor Project is a leading voice in the fight for a safer and more inclusive world. Trevor has utilized innovative corporate partnerships to open up unprecedented opportunities for creative engagement and mutual ownership over LGBTQ inclusion and well-being, expanding its audience and boosting its impact.

5. Shifting from organizational silos to integration: In traditional settings, marketing teams have been singularly responsible for branding. Breakthrough nonprofits make concerted efforts to break down internal silos and create cohesion across the organization, ensuring that the organization is synergistically aligned to present a clear and consistent message to supporters.

UNICEF’s brand, ‘for every child,’ has been expertly infused throughout the organization and stands at the center of everything it does – from its operating structure and financial dealings, to programs and partnerships. A full complement of guidelines, communication tools, training programs, and stories cultivate the visual and verbal identity for UNICEF’s brand, empowering staff and volunteers to “live” the brand meaning and bring its message to supporters and the children and communities they serve.

6. Shifting from protectionist to futurist thinking: Doing things the way they have always been done does not position an organization for future growth or success. Breakthrough brands are uncomfortable with complacency and are prepared to make strategic investments and decisions tied to audacious goals.

Unlike traditional philanthropy, Acumen is committed to impact-first investments – while still driving shareholder value – to unleash promising innovations other investors would not risk supporting, with the goal of taking grassroots solutions to poverty to scale. By investing in low-income entrepreneurs in some of the hardest hit places, Acumen is leveraging unique, firsthand insights to solve the world’s most severe problems.

7. Shifting from market competition to cooperation: Traditional brand strategy tends to focus on dominating a cause or becoming the farthest reaching organization. Breakthrough nonprofit brands recognize that no one organization can fight for a cause and win single-handedly. Breakthrough nonprofit brands collaborate but find space within a cause or movement in which the organization best delivers.

As the world’s hunger specialist, Action Against Hunger leverages decades of frontline experience to develop impactful and mutually beneficial partnerships that progress the movement to end life-threatening hunger. Long-standing corporate employee engagement and fundraising partnerships have increased its brand credibility, capacity, and capital, while also promoting corporate objectives and shared value creation.

8. Shifting from program maintenance to property management: Traditionally structured brands may operate with a vigilant focus on brand meaning. A breakthrough nonprofit brand will use its focus as a filter and create brand extensions that serve as logical expressions of the parent brand, often building emotional appeal with different target audiences.

Charity: water is focused on ending the global water crisis and has been working diligently to extend its reach, generate new revenue streams, and build brand equity. With a diverse and multi-sector partnership portfolio, charity: water is utilizing partnered fundraising campaigns, co-branded merchandise, media, and experiences to tap into new audiences and elevate its impact on the world.

Brand building is an investment that aligns resources, strengthens, and sustains organizations when it is truly treated as an investment versus an expense. Breakthrough nonprofit brands know that building a brand is only the first step. Consistent and disciplined execution of the brand is always required to see the biggest return on investment.

For more on becoming a breakthrough nonprofit brand, Breakthrough NonProfit Branding: Seven Principles to Power Extraordinary Results by CCOP partners Carol Cone and Kristian Darigan Merenda is available on


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