Nonprofit Branding: How Leaders Betray Nonprofit Brands

I think powerful predators may hide at the top of an organization’s food-chain. Perhaps your own.

I base this conclusion on the frequency of nonprofit branding scandals.

Am I right?  If so, there are some great lessons here for all nonprofits. Or, do you think I am off base?   If so, tell me where I got it wrong.


Football related scandal eats Penn State alive.   The brands of Planned Parenthood and Komen are ripped by the fangs of political interests.  Over in the for-profit sector, a debate unrelated to chicken mercilessly consumes the identity of Chic-fil-A.

Like you, I watched the crossfire of accusations during these ugly, unnecessary and destructive eruptions.  Now let’s see if you agree with my conclusions.

Conclusion #1: It does not matter who went overboard first or who threw the first punch or who was more aggressive or more deceptive or more righteous. In brand-damaging, mission-degrading conflicts like these, both sides become aggressors. Both sides become victims. This stuff is the worst kind of irresponsible brand-destruction. Long after the blood has dried, consequences resonate with employees, with clients and with supporters.

Conclusion #2: These incidents are not accidents. Each was directly caused by the organizations’ leaders. Their leaders!  It’s the leaders who poked the holes in these boats. There has to be a lesson in that…..

Conclusion #3: Some nonprofit leaders yield inappropriately to pressure, to convenience, to their personal values. These leaders embrace alliance with political or religious or chauvinist power. They self-indulgently forget their stewardship responsibility. Their brand becomes hostage to a special interest.

For years Komen and Planned Parenthood fought the battle for women’s health. Their shared mission does not include fighting each other or becoming pawns of competing political parties engaged in battle over divisive and highly distorted social issues. Chick-fil-A’s own mission statement is focused on becoming America’s best quick-service restaurant. No mention of being an advocacy organization engaged in the debate over who can and cannot be married. Penn State is not a football team. It is an institution with 45,000 students, 9,000 faculty and a $2 billion budget committed to teaching, to research and to public service. (As a former university VP and secretary to the board, I know how powerful the alumni can be, and how much pressure is applied by fans and the press. Nevertheless, a university administration is running an educational enterprise for society – not a sports franchise for fans and alumni. There can be no argument about this.)

Organizations like these have missions that attract bazillions of employees, supporters and clients. Their leaders must not sell these folks down the river. They cannot self-indulgently use the organization to honor their own preferences and affiliations. They must not let their organizations become allies, and eventual pawns, of forces that have the power to use, abuse and discard them.

Conclusion #4: This risk is partially caused by the divisive, predatory political climate we permit in our country. It is ten or fifteen kinds of dumb for an organization’s stewards to cultivate or accept the favor of a political movement, a religious organization or a powerful but unrelated lobbying and advocacy group. Because we live in divisive times,  those organizations may become dangerous allies as they pursue their own agendas – and exploit your brand to do so.

Conclusion #5: Among things like common sense, integrity and commitment, there is a huge aspect of proportion involved in this stew. Someplace in the back of my head are remnants of a parable about the lion and the lamb cuddling up and passing the night together. Nice story.

More important for our purposes are stories of all the times lions woke up alone, with a full stomach.

Remember our high school pal Cassius (he of the “…lean and hungry look…”)? Cassius is the guy who stabbed Julius Caesar in the back. In addition to his dagger, Cassius had a second point. This one is verbal. It’s a good insight – but not much of an excuse for killing the Emperor:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

That’s the point! Two metaphors. Same important reality. Most nonprofits are underlings – or lambs. They exist in a polarizing marketplace of power and politics. It is a huge risk for leaders to align their nonprofits with a force that is far more powerful…. and intent on advancing an unrelated agenda.

Political pressure is not the only offender. Nor is religion. Trustees and executive directors can exert the same pressure. (How many of these folks have you seen be more committed to their own ends than they are committed to the mission?)  Large contributors can engage in mission predation, as can affiliate organizations and corporate sponsors. Under pressure from power-brokers like these, the leaders of an organization can falter and allow it to become an underling – a hostage to another, more powerful party.

BOTTOM LINE: Mission Predation receives little comment in the nonprofit literature, yet its consequences can be devastating. Alliances with apparently benign organizations and causes, formed with the best of intentions, can land on the underling brand like an avalanche lands on a ski chalet. This is something of a new insight for me. And hopefully a useful one for you.

Were they to be honest with themselves (and at this point I think they probably will never be) the leaders of the four organizations that illustrate my point would acknowledge that their recent conflicts were terribly damaging…. and the cause was “…not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we allowed our organization to become underling to more powerful forces that had little regard for our mission…”



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