Nonprofit Branding: Another Inexcusable Branding Crisis. Another Good Lesson For All Nonprofits.

This is a story of a self-inflicted misfire of governance. Egos trumped mission. And undermined the brand.

The nonprofit’s leadership was puzzled about  community indifference to its work.

Was it harder on the nonprofit’s leaders to learn they were themselves the cause of the branding problem? Or harder to be embarassed by an outsider – as happened in the following story?

Final question…does their misplaced marketing emphasis help identify a risk faced by your own organization?

It can happen to any nonprofit. Read on…..

A panel of nine people was assembled to advise the local United Way. The concern was flat revenue and uncertain image. The nine advisors, people of competence and achievement, were happy to provide advice.

The advisory panel arrived at the appointed place. Greeting them were United Way Directors were dressed in rented faux-military uniforms. They unaccountably presented themselves with military bearing, jargon and symbolism. These Directors wanted their meeting to be memorable. Instead, they drove it into the ditch. By so doing they ironically put a spotlight on their core problem.

I was there. This is what happened:

The advisors were asked to stand at attention, raise their right hands and be sworn into the United Way Consulting Army. Escorted by martial music, they were then marched – in formation and at cadence – to a sparse dinner. An “officer” (the board chair, I think) presided over the meal. She used charts and graphs to define the “enemy” the advisors were to target. That enemy was declining community respect and support.

After dinner the advisors were divided into three squadrons. Each was led by a United Way staffer. The assignment for those squadrons: go on patrol, locate the enemy (the branding crisis) and vanquish it with targeted discussion, analysis and recommendations. After the mission was completed, the Toy Soldiers were to report back to the mess hall and debrief for the United Way Directors, who presumably were the High Command of this military operation.


It gets worse. The advisors graciously, but uncomfortably, played along. They formed into assigned squads, discussed the “enemy” for an hour and then reported back for a de-briefing session.

In line with the way the organization marketed itself, they suggested things like the following:

  • give major contributors more publicity;
  • emphasize that the highly visible companies must achieve 100% payroll deduction from employees;
  • set up rivalries between companies of equal size and publicize that competition;
  • enroll more solicitors;
  • find a better way to involve the members of the local country club (this was a big one);
  • buy more newspaper advertising.

After these clouds of gas had been issued, one fellow (a university vice president) asked the Commanding Officer if he could provide an additional perspective. With permission granted, he explained the following:

  • nine very busy folks had just invested a total of 36 hours at the request of  the United Way staff and directors;
  • half that time – 18 hours of potentially productive consulting effort – had been wasted on silly military nonsense and a bad meal posing as clever social interaction;
  • the other half of the volunteers’ time had been focused on a misguided examination of the wrong issues. Community esteem and support is not the problem. It is a symptom.

By now the United Way folks were squirming. However,  the other eight recruits in the Consulting Army began to nod their heads in amused agreement.

The speaker continued: “A brand is public perception. You can’t control the United Way brand. But your marketing messages surely influence it. And, unfortunately, those messages are all about you…”

To illustrate, he pointed to the dozen or so half-page newspaper ads from last year’s fundraising campaign. They were now framed and adorning the walls of the meeting room. Some touted top United Way volunteer with photos, bios, and words of endearment about his or her efforts. Other half page ads featured corporations which enrolled 100% or close to 100% of their employees. There was a nice group photo of the United Way Board of Directors.

Then he said laid out the problem and embarrassed some of his friends who were United Way Directors:

In the instructions you gave us, in the discussions I just joined, in the reports from the three “squadrons” there was never a mention of the agencies you support. Tonight’s discussions ignored the people who depend on those agencies, just as your marketing messages have done. What about the single mom who needs special support or the family with a loved one in Hospice care or the kids who are kept off the streets by the soccer and baseball leagues? What about the unemployed guy who gets a wheelchair from local Multiple Sclerosis Society or the indigent woman who gets her teeth fixed at the community clinic?

Your mission is to meet their needs – not your own needs. Your brand reflects how well you succeed in that mission.  Your marketing and fundraising messages must reinforce the brand with stories of how those who need services have benefited from your work. But you have been messaging about how cool you and your team are. On your own importance to the community. Not on human beings who need help. Not on our obligation to provide that help.

I was the university vice president who made these criticisms.  (I hope you guessed that.) My comments offended several people. I was sorry they did. But I saw this problem, not as an image crisis. but as a simple matter of nonprofit ethics. They asked. I merely answered.

RESULTS: A few months later, when the next fundraising campaign began, the United Way reversed its marketing emphasis. It began to focus newspaper and broadcast ads, and the print materials handed out by solicitors, on the people it served. And the Executive Director thanked me for helping rescue the brand from the board that held it hostage. But several directors continued to feel hurt. United Way messaging was no longer about them and their social crowd. It had become about mission.

Which, of course, is the way you influence the brand you can’t control.

Your brand must be about the mission. Do everything you can to keep it rooted there. Don’t let the enormously competitive nonprofit marketplace, where all organizations are fighting for constituents and support, become polluted by messages about how cool you and your directors are. That is a common and destructive branding mistake.



One thought on “Nonprofit Branding: Another Inexcusable Branding Crisis. Another Good Lesson For All Nonprofits.

  1. I think this message can be applied to other arenas as well. It takes setting aside the ego to see the mission with fresh eyes, whether that mission is for a non-profit or profit organization, or even relationships or personal development. Thank you for an entertaining story and the reminder to focus on the core meaning.

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