Nonprofit Branding: She almost died on that mountain – a metaphor for nonprofit marketing

After flipping out of the sky, her plane dove through fog, into treetops and then imploded on a New Hampshire mountainside. Huddled in the wreckage with dead companions, my wife’s high school friend somehow survived the frigid night.

At daybreak search planes began their routes. Airborne spotters scrutinized an irregular, jumbled terrain of  rocks, trees and snow hummocks. Everything below that was not a shadow cast one of its own.

The sun moved through the sky. Shadows and bursts of snow-glare re-sorted and re-formed.  Search planes shifted trajectory. Even for the searchers’ trained eyes, it was nearly impossible to spot a downed seven-passenger airplane. They persevered, knowing anyone who survived the crash would soon die of exposure.

That morning, hours after the search began, she regained strength. She eased her way through the crumpled fuselage and stumbled into the open air.  Leaning against the wreckage she tried to squint through forest and snow-glare to get her bearings.

The young woman wore a red parka she had donned before takeoff a day earlier.  Contrasting with shades of grey and white and black of winter mountains, that spot of bright color became visual contrast, calling out to searchers above.  It was noticed. Within hours my wife’s high school friend was rescued from that mountainside in New Hampshire.

She survived because she stood out against her surroundings.

Remember this:  she chose to wear her red parka on that flight over snowy mountains – instead of her white one.

Takeaway: You ALREADY have a brand. That brand is the public impression of your organization, its mission and its impact.

Your brand is a cumulative perception that lives out there in a competitive marketplace. It is beyond your control. But not beyond your influence.

  • Be sure your brand stands out against visual clutter. That means a clean, mission-related evocative logo. Accompanied by a crisp cutline, even if the cutline is just your name. A positioning statement is an even better logo element.
  • Be sure your brand stands out against mission-clutter. Have a clearly defined and well communicated purpose, a purpose that ties directly to your name. Be sure that purpose is explained whenever and wherever. Make sure the explanation clearly differentiates it from other nonprofits.
  • Be sure your brand stands out against competitive clutter with consistent, credibility-enhancing messaging about its goals, its achievements, its volunteers, its aspirations. Work to be known for what you are and what you do.

Each day an average person sees up to 3,000 advertisements and receives hundreds of other verbal and visual messages. To get attention your nonprofit must be spotted against that crowded message landscape. Get in that fight – you need public attention to help recruit volunteers, raise money and implement mission.

Some colleagues and board members may disagree. They may say it is wrong to apply branding principles to nonprofits. They may feel branding is a crass import from the for-profit sector, an impure use of nonprofit resources. Tell them to get their head out of the sand.  And to get the hell out of the way. That battle is already over. Tell them branding is not a passing fad. Tell them it is not a distraction from serving the mission. Tell them that, until the unicorns return to the valley, you will follow Burke’s Axiom #29:

An organization must survive. An organization that survives can compete for resources. An organization with resources can deliver its mission. To survive in our dynamic, complex, fast-moving, message-saturated culture, your nonprofit must be recognized.  That recognition IS ITS BRAND!

The logic of Burke’s Axiom #29 flows in only one direction. It cannot work in reverse.

When you hear an anti-branding rant, remember: If Janice’s friend had chosen to wear her white parka on that flight, this would have been a different story!

(BTW – although I expect you already know this, Janice is my wife, Janice Gavan, president of VisABILITY.)



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