Thrift vs. Spending: Navigating the Paradox of Nonprofit Branding

How to advance a cause without looking commercially driven

Headshot of Andrea Katz

Branding is never easy, but nonprofit branding poses special challenges. 

Potential partners, team members, donors and advocates can have wildly varying expectations when it comes to defining a nonprofit organization's profile. On the one hand, thrift and efficiency are held in high-esteem; on the other, there is a natural hesitation for stakeholders to engage with organizations that don't have a recognizable brand. 

Do efficient altruism and effective branding need to be at odds? The answer is no. In fact, with the right approach, these two seemingly opposing forces can work in tandem.

Andrea Katz

 Nonprofits need to build and maintain strong brands, but there is a certain latitude for lavish campaign spending enjoyed by for-profits that is simply not extended to nonprofits. To qualify as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, an organization must "use its surplus revenues to further achieve its purpose or mission." Without this mission-critical messaging, even altruistic organizations risk appearing commercially driven.

Several New York City hospitals recently missed the memo that if a nonprofit's messages feel too commercial, they will not be trusted. It's hard for NYC nonprofit hospitals to justify dumping $80 million blanketing the city in pricey ads as altruism. NYU Langone's campaign (via agency Munn Rabôt) claims it is "Made for New York" while failing to mention what it does for the city or the inhabitants it purports to understand so well.

J. Walter Thompson's pricey rebranding of North Shore Hospital to Northwell has substance behind it, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering at least combined sentimentality with some science, both spending millions to get these messages across. Conversely, something about New York Presbyterian's testimonial-driven campaign's admission (also Munn Rabôt) that "some case studies are identified via hospital PR" diminishes the emotional punch and authenticity of its tagline, "Amazing things are happening here."

If nonprofit branding can sometimes go awry or go to extremes to mimic for-profit campaigns, can the opposite also be true? A successful advertising series by Prudential proves it can.

In early 2015, Prudential teamed with Droga5 and Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert, to create a series of 30-second spots that rely on behavioral science and real-world data visualization to spur viewers to rethink their retirement preparedness. The ads are conspicuous in their lack of commercialism; getting people to choose Prudential was secondary, and being overly promotional would have cheapened the message.

The goal for nonprofit branding should never be simply to drive more donations or to increase one's public profile. People have very low forgiveness for nonprofits that do this (see the "pink-washing" plaguing Susan G. Komen). Instead, the aim of great nonprofit branding should be to propel the cause forward and galvanize social change.

In doing so, the identifying elements of your brand (logo, visuals, story, tone) become inextricably tied to your cause. LVMH did just that with its nonprofit effort "Chime for Change," as did the Nike Foundation with "The Girl Effect." By building a cause around and apart from their core brand, LVMH and Nike managed to artfully balance authentic altruism and effective branding.

Charity: Water is currently setting the new high bar for nonprofit branding. Its branding stands apart because it effectively communicates a problem the organization is trying to solve (universal access to clean water), the solution (well drilling and water purification systems) and your potential role in effecting that change (by donating or starting your own campaign).

Sure, a key goal of Charity: Water's branding is to increase visibility and drive donations, but it is not the main goal. The primary goal is to get as many people clean water as possible by any means necessary. By owning that goal, and making that single-minded purpose the heart of its brand story, the organization has effectively solved the paradox facing nonprofit branding. Instead of running glossy ads or funneling donations into expensive campaigns, Charity: Water partners with like-minded organizations and simply communicates its progress and aims while building a powerful brand in the process.

A purpose-driven strategy can go a long way toward navigating the paradox facing nonprofit branding. Make your organization synonymous with your broader mission, and communicate clearly that your job does not end when you receive a donation—rather, it begins.

Prudential and Charity: Water have both done this well, making their brand story inseparable from their purpose. The balance between effective altruism and powerful branding is achieved when purpose emerges from an organization's center, its beating heart.

Authentic, purpose-driven branding inspires generosity of spirit.

—Andrea Katz is founder and Chief Ideonista at Ideon, a strategic brand consultancy in New York City.

Andrea Katz is founder and Chief Ideonista at Ideon, a strategic brand consultancy in New York City.