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Rethinking The Mission-Oriented Brand

Branding is no longer the exclusive domain of for-profit companies now that nonprofits are realizing its value.

Writing from Uganda last month, Becky Straw, founder of The Adventure Project, gushed about Gertrude, a health worker whose business has been booming under the Adventure Project-funded Living Goods project, which trains women to be health workers in rural villages. Watching her mother, Gertrude’s 14-year-old daughter beamed, "When I grow up I want to be a nurse, like my mom."

It is moments like these that build a brand. Branding, defined as the emotional or psychological connection evoked by a product or service, is something that nonprofits have long evinced in their member and donor communities. Consumer brands, on the other hand, have mastered the science and art of packaging a brand, building a compelling message, and creatively leveraging digital media to position brand identity for business growth.

This is where, according to sources like the Stanford Social Innovation Review, consumer brands and nonprofits (and their social enterprise cousins) are beginning to converge: Nonprofit executives are increasingly defining brand in for-profit language. This means that branding is playing a broader and more strategic role in an organization’s core performance, as well as an internal role in expressing an organization’s purposes, methods, and values.

At the same time, for-profits increasingly are embracing the shared social value that nonprofits represent in their quest to address ongoing issues of environmental and social sustainability around their business operations. A symbiosis is forming—nonprofits lend authenticity while consumer brands amplify awareness and add much coveted resources for the nonprofit’s work.

Recent studies confirm the validity of these statements in terms of partnerships. Author Mark Woerde incorporated research into his latest book that surveyed 24,000 consumers, finding that 64% prefer pro-social brands over ordinary brands and that 74% of participants from 16 countries indicated that helping others is their way of living a meaningful life. In the United States alone, Cone Communications found that more than three-quarters (78%) of Americans believe a partnership between a nonprofit and a company they trust makes a cause stand out, 59% of Americans are more likely to buy a product associated with the partnership and 50% are more likely to donate to the nonprofit.

Social enterprises, the new kids on the block of social change, also have much to gain through building strategic partnerships with well-known corporate brands. Traditional brands, intent on reaching their socially conscious consumers, are embracing this wave of do-gooder collaborations.

For instance, Vans recently announced a partnership with social enterprise Krochet Kids International to source hand-crocheted shoes in Uganda, with the collaboration supporting a holistic program that teaches the women artisans to rise above poverty for long-term sustainable economic growth. Another one of my favorite partnerships is Anthropologie and Article22, a fashion social enterprise that employs artisans from Laos to use traditional dyes and methods to make hand-woven and constructed textiles while ensuring that a portion of proceeds are channeled back to the communities.

There are plenty of skeptics who would argue that these social collaborations are the latest fad in corporations cleverly trying to increase their profits by borrowing social change brand power. But there are also a plethora of nonprofits that are negotiating the challenge of creating meaningful corporate partnerships while avoiding potential conflicts of interest. One nonprofit I work with, for example, is exploring cutting edge partnerships with technology companies to create shared value while keeping their beneficiaries’ needs first. On the other side of the coin, I have seen corporate clients’ brands strengthened as employees surge with pride when they actually experience company values come to life in their communities.

On both sides, it’s a balance. Smart mission-oriented organizations are realizing that they can cleverly scale their programs and their communications by borrowing from the brand savvy and financial stability of their mainstream partners.

This isn’t only about taking corporate cash—it’s also about departing from the traditional charity model of messaging and re-envisioning brand as a creative way to engage donors. Take a recent article from advertising magazine Creative Review that chronicled Greenpeace’s slick re-branded Rainbow Warrior fundraising site, courtesy of ad shop DDB Paris. Or the Dulux Own A Colour site, which invites users to purchase and name a Dulux color, with all proceeds going to UNICEF.

I’ve seen this work firsthand as an adviser for The Adventure Project. Founder Becky Straw knows the value of beautiful design and strategic corporate partnerships from her time at Charity: Water. "Now more than ever, corporate brands have powerful opportunities to leverage their resources for social good, while gaining valuable PR and increased revenues," Straw explains. "The more brands give, the more they get. And if they invest their giving wisely, they can truly create positive and lasting change." Straw is currently exploring bringing social enterprise to the masses through creative collaborations like 1:Face Watches.

The converging spaces of design, sustainability, user experience and digital strategy highlight the rapidly evolving space in which corporations and social-change organizations now exist. The partnerships highlighted above are just a handful of examples of how nimble mission-oriented organizations can grow their influence and serve their constituents, while changing the rules for traditional fundraising and partnerships.