Nonprofit Branding: The Most Expensive Way to Cut Cost

All nonprofit managers anguish over finding ways to reduce expenses during periods of economic hardship. It’s a real challenge to do this without damaging the brand.

Nevertherless, it can be done. You can cut costs, protect the brand and sleep at night!  The secret is to avoid singing the traditional Nonprofit Lament. We’ll help set your course here.

We’ll also introduce a book that should become a Must Read for nonprofit execs – especially those who outgrow the Nonprofit Lament.

REALITY: You operate in a highly competitive marketplace where revenue is driven by personal affinity and by organizational credibility. Survival requires establishing an emotional connection with your constituents.  That connection is your brand!

CONFLICT: The Nonprofit Lament is common default thinking. It is a misguided belief that goes like this:

Because we are a nonprofit, we cannot afford to make this expense or bear that cost.

In the nonprofit world, this unrealistic poor-mouth anthem often becomes an excuse for shortsighted actions.Or failures to act. The Nonprofit Lament leads you to irrelevance. It can be the most direct route.

VIRTUE! This is the better way to think:

Like every nonprofit, we built our brand by investing resources to deliver our mission over time. We survive because the public supports that brand. That brand is a valuable and fragile asset.

Specifically because we ARE a nonprofit, we cannot afford to trigger a down-market slide just to weather a temporary economic storm. We know that actions that erode our brand can be the most expensive way to save money!

Your brand isn’t a luxury: it provides the energy that enables your work. Cut where you must, but protect the brand when doing so:

  • Maintain appearance. Don’t let a scruffy office imply a declining organization. Clean the rugs when they need it. Paint the front door. Wash the windows.
  • Maintain contact. Keep sending your newsletter, participating in local organizations and making public presentations.
  • Maintain responsiveness. Avoid  the common cost-cutting practice of converting to an automated phone answering system. Instead, keep your receptionist on the payroll – but with increased responsibilities.
  • Maintain confidence. Don’t let staff, directors or yourself display a poor-mouth attitude in public. Never talk about how the economy is hurting your organization. In a down economy, your own pain won’t sell nearly as well as your results.
  • Maintain accommodations. If rent is a problem, consider having a co-tenant for a year or so.
  • Maintain presence. The nonprofit marketplace gets more competitive. New rosters of winners and losers emerge. You must keep your own brand in front of the public. Maintain all productive marketing and outreach activities. See if you can get extra help on a pro-bono basis from a local social media or PR shop. Ask the local college if a marketing class would like to take you on as a project.Don’t cut back here – this is a time to do more, not less.

The Nonprofit Lament asserts that, because the mission is noble and because it eschews profit for service, nonprofits can somehow avoid being business-like, market-savvy and tough. That’s baloney – a useless notion that wise nonprofit managers reject. This is the view to adopt when enduring a tough economy:

Allowing our nonprofit brand to be eroded is the most expensive way for us to cut costs!

While waiting for more prosperous times, please don’t lose faith in the importance of your brand. Don’t make financial decisions that compromise that brand. Don’t choose the down-market slide. It erodes market niche and constituent affinity. Just like building a nonprofit brand, re-building one is a costly and time-consuming process. You were hired to avoid going there.


REFERENCE:  Gotta tell you about a new book.

This is the real-world guide I wish had been available to me when I started my nonprofit career in 1967. I learned about it from Jocelyn Harmon’s always excellent blog Marketing for Nonprofits.  In her endorsement of The Mission Myth by Deirdre Maloney, Harmon asserts:

“…Your mission may inspire you to get up in the morning but it won’t make you or your team a success! Too many nonprofit leaders (you know who you are) are passionate about changing the world and that is a good thing. But (and there is a big BUT here) if you don’t find a way to scale your passion through good leadership, efficient processes, stable funding, transparent policies and more you won’t be in business for long. Don’t be fooled by the image of the charitable sector as a poster child for peace, love and happiness. Running a nonprofit is running a business and it’s really hard work…

I added the emphasis to the last sentence.  Readers of the Nonprofit Branding Blog, and folks over in LinkedIn groups where I sometimes post, know I frequently make the same argument. Harmon’s endorsement of The Mission Myth makes me feel validated about my own beliefs. So, now I feel cheeky enough to ask you to indulge me for about four minutes. Do the following:

FIRST: read Harmon’s post about Maloney’s great book. (And, while you are there, subscribe to Harmon’s thoughtful blog, in the blank on the left, below her big smile.)

SECOND: Read this short excerpt from The Mission Myth.

Do these two things. They’ll make us all feel better about ourselves, about our careers and about the way mission is better served when it does not trump results. The truth is that nonprofit execs earn the right to feel all soft and fuzzy about mission…only after they get the job done.  That’s why the Mission Myth is a great guide.

COMING NEXT: Some good stuff is in the pipeline. Next week I will begin a two-part series about the most compelling imprinted branding product – the one thing you want in your toolbox for use as a contributor incentive, a marketing freebie or a thank you for work well done. Then, in early May I will discuss how you can protect your brand in hard times by cost-cutting the right way. I will reinforce the point with an anecdote about how one of our most revered national institutions really screwed it up with an ugly, ill-advised effort at reducing expenses – with  Janice and me right in the middle!


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