Nonprofit Branding: Staying Afloat Is Job One

Mission is the reason your nonprofit exists. But survival comes before mission!

Your first mandate is to keep the ship afloat. This century-old wreck reminds us that not all ships fulfill their mission. Only if your organization is solvent and functional will you be able to adequately deliver on its promise to society.  Then – and only then – will be you able to do the good work you set out to do.

Times ARE tough. The economy has already caused some nonprofit managers and organizations to fail – perhaps when they were most needed. Others are failing as I write these observtions.


BUT NOTE THIS: some managers and organizations will flourish specifically because of the way they make use of the nation’s economic austerity and uncertainty.

You can do the same! Here are some tips to protecting the brand during tough times. We can all agree – from observation or from direct experience: leading a nonprofit is becoming more difficult. An austere economy adds new burdens and greater uncertainty. Revenue streams are threatened. Demand for service increases. Nonprofit boards and executives face greater competition for resources, for volunteers, and for market position.

As consultant, employee and director I have been through several cycles of organizational stress caused by threats to the revenue stream. This will surprise you: I learned to regard the threat as My Pal.

My Pal provided incentive that could not be ignored by the organization. My Pal provided political cover that would be accepted as the organization responded to the incentive. In short – My Pal – the external threats to stability and even to survival – made it easier to update and upgrade and adjust. He allowed me to bite bullets I had merely been gumming. To tighten-up operations. To abandon soft practices that always evolve during good times.To expect more of my self and my colleagues.

Astute nonprofit managers, the ones who have been in the saddle for a couple decades or more, are most likely to understand this principle. They know when it is time to declare the nonprofit equivalent of Total War. They then become aggressively focused, far more than before — on financial stability,  mission relevance, enhanced marketing and energized fundraising.

They know this focus makes some colleagues, volunteers and directors uncomfortable. They also know it protects the organizations those folks love.

My Pal can become Your Pal. Consider these two tasks that are often overlooked or downplayed during good times.

Task 1 – Confront Dysfunction: Many of this blog’s readers have at least one employee, one board member or one volunteer whose performance is inconsistent or even substandard.

In good times a nonprofit manager can choose, as I have often done, to live with moderate dysfunction, expecting it will stay contained and not harm the brand. Not in times of economic distress! Teamwork, morale and results become extra important in those times. That makes  weak links stand out while good colleagues try to accomplish more work with fewer resources and less reward.

Here’s your risk: the good folks can begin to feel wounded by the substandard performance of those who “don’t get it.”  Sensitivity over this contrast can grow – and quickly threaten morale and productivity. Inevitably, the mission gets short-changed and the brand suffers.

No colleague can be allowed to undermine morale and undercut productivity. Not at the staff level. Not at the volunteer level. Not at the board level.

In tough times your coaching responsibility becomes more critical. It should be easier for you to informally but visibly moderate performance of the entire team. You should have an easier shot dealing with weak links without going to the mat.  Sit down with those who don’t meet your expectations. Have that conversation you’ve been avoiding. Do that so the indifference or inability of one does not undermine the enhanced effort of the others.

This is an ethical obligation of stewardship. Handle it effectively and those who have the capacity and the will to improve will do so.

Management Tip #1: Remember this: you have to reach these folks before chronic behavior becomes acute and acute behavior leads to crisis. Take that first step and maybe you won’t need to take a second and more damaging steps that can lead to termination.

Task 2 – Update Marketing Messages: The societal and economic environment changed greatly in the last few years. Have you thought about a communications tune-up to make your messaging better reflect society’s current values and concerns? Maybe you should take an hour to review your standard marketing messages, positioning statement, tag line, logo and perhaps even your mission statement. These are branding assets that most nonprofit execs don’t visit often enough.

See if you should tighten your messaging practices – frequency, content and delivery format. Make sure you are communicating who you are today and what you do today to those who need to receive that message today. By updating your communications cornerstones you can clarify your mission, reassert your brand and protect your niche as the nonprofit marketplace becomes increasingly stressed and competitive.

Management Tip #2: When society and the economy are under excess pressure, market perceptions shift. Affinities may wander. Some brands become blurred or damaged.

Bottom Line: In good times the two tasks I suggested – updating marketing messages and controlling dysfunction – are matters of discretion, the kind of activity you will undertake when it feels right and you find the time. During a period of economic uncertainty, these tasks become more urgent, more necessary and more productive. Ignore  or delay them and you may add to the burden imposed by the economy. Not all nonprofits will survive this era. Make sure yours does.

As director and manager I considered economic pressure as My Pal. Make it Your Pal. He will help you bite those bullets.

Coming Next: We’ll look at some other modest adjustments to help your nonprofit stay afloat in rough seas. When hard time loom, the common reaction is to look for the Big Fix – when the reality is that a bunch of minor adjustments are easier to handle, inappropriate to ignore and possibly as productive as the often elusive Big Fix.

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