Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.



The Smallest Nonprofits Should Have The Most Powerful Brands

Because it can be seen as taking time and money away from helping people, nonprofits often devote little or no time to developing their own brands. But this can be a huge mistake.

(Product) Red. Charity:Water. Toms Shoes. These are just a few of the big brands that engage millions in efforts to address some aspect of poverty at the global level. But at the local level, a lack of strong branding means small grassroots groups don’t get the credit they deserve for being the world’s frontline soldiers in the struggle against poverty.

There’s plenty of discussion and research about the growing role of branding for large nonprofits based in wealthy countries—see Harvard’s Hauser Center for the Study of Nonprofits or a long article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review from spring of 2012. But among smaller groups in the developing world, the lack of time, money, and understanding remain major obstacles to branding at their level.

"Some are unaware of the influence branding can have; others realize its potential but have insufficient means to make the transformation," says Glyn Vaughn, a British audiologist who founded All Ears Cambodia, a small organization in Cambodia that provides medical services to people with ear and hearing problems. In 2007, when they were a team of only three people, All Ears Cambodia became a client of BrandOutLoud, a Netherlands-based nonprofit organization that works with small nonprofits in the developing world to strengthen their communications and branding.

"Large international organizations have stories about project X with a local partner that does this in country Y, implying that these are their children and their project but it’s really not," says Judith Madigan, CEO and co-founder of BrandOutLoud. "It is really the local partner’s story, and that story needs to be told, or otherwise the local project will always be dependent on the large international organization not just for money but for marketing and to get the story out there."

Local groups expect international organizations or donors will pull funding from local groups eventually, says Nhip Thy, executive director at the Cambodian Development Mission for Disability (CDMD)—another former BrandOutLoud client. "A local nonprofit group should be prepared to take over in that situation," Nhip adds. CDMD saw a brand as part of that preparation, but, Nhip says, "many international donors don’t fund for organization development such as branding or communication."

Given a peer-to-peer fundraising platform like GlobalGiving, thousands of grassroots organizations have accessed tools and expertise to help to tell their stories. Since 2002, $68 million and counting has flowed through GlobalGiving to organizations and projects, mostly located in the developing world. That success is due in large part to those organizations utilizing the branding assets they already have at their disposal.

"Branding started out because customers no longer had personal relationships with the people behind growing companies," says Alison Carlman, the "unmarketing manager" at GlobalGiving. "Companies had to create these fictional stories and characters so that consumers would relate to their products. The thing about grassroots organizations is, they already have authentic relationships, stories, and characters in the form of the people they’ve worked with over the years. We do training sessions for groups on GlobalGiving to think through who their networks are and to identify the best ways to connect with those networks."

Beyond donations, a strong brand also encourages and strengthens key partnerships with other organizations, from government to businesses to other nonprofits.

"I believe branding is more important for nonprofits than for-profits because nonprofits are in the business of cooperating, more than competing," says Burton Glass, principal at Hairpin Communications, a branding and communications agency dedicated to building brands for world-changers, do-gooders, and hell-raisers. "Each nonprofit has to find an irreplaceable niche. A branding process helps you figure out what that is. That seems healthy to me."

The most important partnership a grassroots organization can strengthen with branding is with its own community. A growing middle class in the developing world is a vast potential source of donations, and volunteers from any income level are a welcome asset to any grassroots organization. A strong brand helps attract more of both, locally.

"One of the most amazing stories I’ve seen," says Madigan, "Was a blind student who got to go to school and go to university all by the help of this local organization, and he came back to that organization as a volunteer and there he is wearing the organization T-shirt telling everyone his story about how they helped him rise above his circumstances and how they can help others."

There are plenty more local heroes—brand evangelists, you might call them—like that blind student. What if the credit they bestow actually went to the local groups that deserve it most?

Add New Comment


  • Andrew Sims

    For charities, a big barrier to developing great branding is fear of losing their audience. They are afraid that if they come across as too refined - if their voice is too effective - they will appear to not need support.

  • Andrew Sims

    Working with non-profits, this has been my experience. In a world where brand messages are no longer broadcasts, but thousands of interactions in different venues and media, what is most important is a core identity held together by principles and ideals to hold those conversations together. This is true for commercial entities as well as non-profits and charities - but charities are already well positioned for this way of engaging with people because they are often founded upon central ideals and principles that are the focus of what they do. Commercial companies often have to work much harder to define what they are about - beyond producing successful products or services, what is their mission and why?

    This central mission not only holds these diverse conversations together, but also brings together the community inside the organisation behind guiding principles for their work, collaboration and culture. A strong organisational culture effects organisations from head-to-toe, from management through to audiences and participants, and a strong brand is a major contributor to that.

  • Tim Blake

    Great insight Oscar. It's crucial for non-profits and even not-for-profits to take a look at their branding. If you're unable to attract the attention and trust of the for-profit patrons — as William pointed out — then it will always be a struggle to survive. The investment is well worth the time.

  • Anil Annaiah

    Absolutely. The way forward to multiply and initiate winning propositions.

  • Samar Ali

    I've read the article and it has a good insight about branding for nonprofit organizations but you didn't show up on how they make it.

    I think being a partner with global organization maybe not working for some developing countries like in Africa. 

  • William L

    You know it amazes me every time I read an article stating that some group that is being funded by for-profit business should have the stronger brand or image, as opposed to the for-profit businesses that give so generously of their bottom line. While I can appreciate why the author chose to make this case, instead maybe he could dig into the charitable donations of the small, medium, and large for-profit businesses that donote so regularly to make the non-profits happen, and sing their praises. When you really look at it, without them, you couldn't change the world. Maybe, its they, that are changing the world...just a thought.

  • Samar Ali

    I've read the article and it has a good insight about branding for nonprofit organizations but you didn't show up on how they make it.

    I think being a partner with global organization maybe not working for some developing countries like in Africa. 

  • AdrianRidley

    I think you need to look into the 1:Face connects consumers & charities.

    Truly amazing idea! I found it through instagram everyone is talking about it

  • Allison Jones

    At the Mashable Social Good Summit, Nicholas Kristof stated: "People flinch at idea of marketing but it is so important to get the word out about issues of life and death." Branding is too often seen as something that takes away from the work that an organization is doing. 
    Part of the challenge is demonstrating why it's important to start this process sooner rather than later (branding isn't about selling; it's about building relationships that help move your mission forward) and how this can be done if you don't have a big budget. It's also about convincing board members and donors who like to see low overhead that this is an investment that will pay off in the long run. Examples, like the ones given above, help steer the conversation in the right direction.

  • Danielle Falalaetra

    Could not agree more! Our design and marketing firm just rebranded a very small nonprofit for free in August because they are doing such amazing work, but felt too guilty putting the funding into a good branding/marketing strategy We hope that all the work can only help them become more successful and in turn, help MORE kids by having a bigger presence.