Carlo M. Cuesto asked readers to comment on an article he wrote about six years ago entitled, “Building the Nonprofit Brand from the Inside Out.” He asked for input to help update the article to today’s reality. As you know, I started to think about nonprofits and branding last week and thought it would be fun to continue the conversation.
It’s a great article, and here are my reactions
I was first stopped short by this sentence: “With growth of field twice that of for-profit businesses in the United States, competition among nonprofits is rapidly increasing across the country for contributed support and, in certain sectors, for participants (customers) who impact an organizationís earned revenue.”
It’s not a surprising sentence. A common refrain in the sector is the presumption that there are too many nonprofits and that they are all in competition with one another. Lucy rightly dismisses the fallacy that there are simply too many nonprofits. We need to begin to drill down to understand what the growth in nonprofits really means for communities, and whether the growth is in advocacy organizations more than services. (I don’t ever recall anyone in a community saying, “There are just too many darn nonprofits trying to serve poor people here.) The blanket statement that the growth in the number of nonprofits is automatically a bad thing doesn’t hold water.
But, I digress.
The more important part of the sentence is the presumption that nonprofit organizations are in competition with one another. And here is one place in particular where I would urge Carlo to rethink the idea of branding based on the advent of social media. Social media makes social networks visible through channels like Facebook and Twitter. Once they’re visible they can be energized to work on behalf of causes and organizations. Nonprofit organizations are part of this landscape of networks. In a networked environment, organizations aren’t competition with one another but resources. This might make sense if one is an arts organization and another is an after school program where they can envision working together to create a program.
But, how would it work if they were two after school programs, presumably in competition with one another for the same population? Beth and I think it comes down to a question of organization’s getting back to the fundamentals of what they are trying to accomplish. If there are two groups serving the same population, it would make sense for them to figure out which one does which parts of that service better, which one has the capacity to do what and serve whom. Or perhaps they ought to merge, although that doesn’t happen often in the sector. These organizations need to focus on what they do best and then network the rest.
OK, onto the rest of Carlo’s article. He has a beautiful diagram that I unfortunately couldn’t replicate of branding. It is a large circle with mission in the center and then consecutive outer rings of Promise, External Factors and the outer ring is Participant Perceptions. Within the ring on External Factors is also results.
I think that what is missing now that wouldn’t have been possible for nonprofits several years ago is the opportunity to use social media for conversations with large numbers of people about their organizations. What was the realm of market researchers with their toolset of surveys and focus groups only then, is now the commerce of sites like Facebook where large numbers of people are there and available for conversations. Carlo’s old diagram feels like a series of activities that an organization pushes outwards. I’d love for it now to represent a more open and porous two-way street of conversations. It’s still the same end goal of building to organizations that are trusted by the public to do good work and raise funds and other resources. But the process of getting there now doesn’t happen from the inside out, but from outside in and inside out.
Organizations need to focus on relationship building online and on land. This comes from listening and talking with their communities. Every day, as a fundamental part of the way that organizations work. When relationships are strengthened so are brands. Thanks Carlo, for giving me a chance to think about this more!