Nonprofit Branding: Belief Versus Fact – the Struggle Over Your Brand

Your organization’s brand is public perception. It’s beyond your direct control. So, ask yourself:

1) how does the public make up its collective mind?

2) how does my nonprofit influence that process?

Great questions. I’ve wondered about them for years. Now, maybe we have an answer.

Long ago I noticed how people resist letting facts intrude on their beliefs.

My parents were strong believers in the Roman Catholic Church. They followed its rules. But they were unfamiliar with Church history, the basis of its doctrines or the beliefs of other religions. As a 12 or 13 year-old, I inadvertently triggered what became several decades of parent-child discomfort. That’s because I started reading books and asking questions about many topics, including our family religion.

To me learning about these things was fun. To them my actions were threatening. I wanted to know. They wanted to believe.

I was just a boy then. Didn’t understand why war was declared.  So I figured the difference between us reflected my parents’ personal nature, or the expectations of religion or perhaps the behavior of their generation. Later in life, having encountered dozens of similar episodes, I realized my parents are normal.  I was the oddball.

Flash forward from 1952 to 2012 for a less personal example. Like most people, I closely watched the Penn State mess slither into public view. As a former university VP and secretary to the board of trustees, I had special recognition that school leaders, from Coach Paterno up the food-chain, failed to honor two sacred trusts: their obligation to children and their obligation to the reputation of their great institution.

The public record is clear. Nevertheless, millions of people reject this reality. Or blame the media. Or condemn the victims. Or otherwise argue that Penn State was not at fault and the world is flat. William Falk can explain this tendency….

The Week Magazine is a neat weekly print and online recap of the news. On July 19, the magazine’s editor, William Falk, wrote a two paragraph article titled When the mind plays tricks on itself. In it Falk explains why personal opinion and public opinion are such stubborn beasts. As a nonprofit executive or board member responsible for the fragile and valuable asset called your brand, you will find Falk’s conclusions worth considering. (If it doesn’t make sense, shoot our readers your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s talk about this.)

Falk’s lead sentence, in bold and italics: Let’s not be too hard on the people who were so certain Joe Paterno was a saint. Falk’s first paragraph then recapped the Penn State debacle and ended like this:

….. let’s not smugly conclude that only the Penn State community could be so blind—that hubris and self-delusion are confined to Paterno’s Happy Valley. The same, boundless capacity for denial lies within every one of us.

Then Falk introduced the explanation of how opinion – personal and public – is such an intractable, fact-resistant inertia clot:

Social psychologists have various terms for the tricks the mind plays on itself: cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning. Human beings are not, at our cores, rational creatures. We’re tribal and emotional, and fiercely defend our deeply held beliefs; we look for evidence and arguments that confirm what we already think, while ignoring or rejecting that which does not. It takes enormous effort—and self-awareness—to view the world without narrow blinders….

Falk makes plenty of sense to me. I hope he makes sense to you. His insights tell us you can’t wrestle your nonprofit reputation into full-blown public acceptance with advertising campaigns, billboards, skywriters, jugglers, magicians and a circus of other hoopla. On the other hand, a solid brand can’t be quickly destroyed – even by damn fool shenanigans like those of the Penn State leadership.

Implementing a mission that benefits society is probably not enough. Your nonprofit must commit all employees, all volunteers, all directors and all actions to to the branding process. Your brand is shaped incrementally and always – shaped by every interaction, shaped by the way your phone is answered, the way your office is maintained, and by the grammar in your emails. Shaped by the nature and frequency of the personal contacts you make, shaped by your cultivation of constituents and adversaries, by the frequency with which your logo is seen and your name is mentioned.

And shaped, always shaped, by unrelenting personal comment of those who know your organization – and those who do not.

BOTTOM LINE: All those little increments push against current perception. Or validate that perception. And in all these little ways you to contribute to the process of branding your nonprofit. If you and your team don’t intentionally, overtly, collaboratively make that contribution….the process of branding your nonprofit will continue. It just won’t be guided by your affirmative influence.

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