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?