Brands Drive Impact: Social Change Organizations Should Invest Accordingly

Sam Hiersteiner of New Profit and Amanda Tien of Camelback Ventures

Declining public trust may be the most important, transformative force in America today. Will social impact organizations, including individual and institutional funders, sit up, take notice, and change their way of thinking and working as a result?

While nonprofits are still among the most trusted institutions in America, the last year saw a significant and jarring drop of public trust in charitable organizations from 58% to 49%, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. These findings are no doubt wrapped up in other trends: cultural polarization, economic dislocation and changes in the workforce, new scrutiny of privacy and practices in the technology sector, and the different attitudes and beliefs of the rising generations.

No simple answers exist for such a complex, multi-faceted, and intertwined set of challenges. But having collectively counseled many dozens of social impact organizations over the last decade, we see brand strategy as a woefully under-leveraged and catalytic tool for building trust with both nonprofit supporters and beneficiaries and, as a result, advancing impact over time. In the business sector, the importance of brand strategy is widely embraced, but exceedingly few social impact organizations have followed suit. That needs to change if we are going to navigate this tumultuous moment, bring in new supporters and stakeholders, and strengthen our efforts to create equity of opportunity in America.

As legendary advocate and nonprofit leader Bill Shore put it in a 2015 Chronicle of Philanthropy piece, “A brand is a promise to one’s customers that your values are what you say they are and that they are reflected in everything you do…Brand is not really about marketing at all. It’s about integrity, accountability, and trust…Most successful businesses…would not conceive of scaling up to their potential without investing in their brand and the lift that gives to their products.”

Despite the good case Shore and others have made, many social impact organizations suffer from backwards thinking on the subject of branding, as we each have witnessed in many interactions. Rather than seeing brand strategy (and, more broadly, communications and marketing) as levers for advancing impact, many organizations see these things as nice-to-have support functions, or even worse, as antithetical to their program-focused mission. Earlier stage organizations often do not have any staff or resources dedicated to branding and communications, even part-time. At almost any stage of evolution, organizations faced with hard budget or other strategic trade-offs often jettison branding and communications first, without a second thought. This mindset has become a barrier to scaling impact and driving systemic change.

The world we live in now demands a new mindset that firmly places branding at the strategic core of social impact organizations as a primary tool for advancing organizational strategy and impact. Here are a few reasons why:

  • A proliferation of nonprofits and new avenues for mobilizing social impact capital (e.g. impact investing and crowdfunding) mean that competition for mindshare and funding is fiercer than ever.
  • There has never been a better moment to be strategically visible and engaging as a social impact organization: The Harris Poll from last year noted that “U.S. consumers’ likelihood to engage with nonprofits is up more than 500 percent since 2016.” More than ever, Americans are looking to nonprofits to fill the gaps in our society and counteract practices and trends that we are seeing as detrimental to our social fabric as a country.
  • Millennial attitudes and behavior have caused a wave of change in corporate branding, marketing, and engagement to be more cause-aligned and socially responsible, as evidenced by many companies taking stands on social issues they wouldn’t have touched in the past. Nonprofits need to think and act with similar resolve, responding to evidence like the massive survey conducted by The Millennial Project that shows millennials are unsatisfied with the status quo, ready to act collectively for causes over institutions, heavily focused on racial inequity and injustice, interested in local issues more than national issues, digitally fluent, and eager to have many opportunities and modes for engagement.

In this new reality, social impact organizations looking to build a new brand strategy, either out of whole cloth or by revisiting an old one, can keep a few things in mind and practice a few others:

  1. Tighten your brand narrative. Stay anchored to three core questions: Who are we? What do we do? Why do we matter?
  2. As you plot a path forward, make sure to always be audience-driven in your brand decision making. Many organizations have multiple stakeholders in their audience; consider how you may differently impact each group, and how you can build and execute your brand in such a way that it instills confidence, trust, and perhaps even love with multiple audience segments.
  3. Take a long-term view. Good branding isn’t just changing a logo and declaring victory — it’s about long-term, methodical, measurable execution. Good branding has to be present in everything you do, whether it’s on your flyer designs, the venue where you choose to host an event, or the way you interview candidates.
  4. Advance the argument internally, as often as you can, that good brand strategy and all of its executions (marketing communications, events, donor meetings, etc.) are core drivers of impact in this new world, and work to position brand strategy as a key topic to be addressed in organizational strategy discussions.
  5. Consistently track and disseminate proof points, whatever they may be, to bolster you case (e.g. when *any* piece of outgoing communication, an event, or another engagement elicits a positive response from a current or prospective stakeholder). These can be qualitative and quantitative.
  6. Be authentic. The secret sauce behind a good brand is authenticity. Now, more than ever, it is impossible to put up a front to the world that is not reflective of the day to day reality of your organization. Be you. That will stir up interest, excitement, and respect from supporters who are genuinely aligned with your values and work, and will keep them engaged for the long-haul.
  7. Think about how your organization can provide a platform for the voices of your constituents. To create more trust and equity of opportunity in this country, it’s critical that all voices are heard. Nonprofits, who are already working deeply with diverse and underserved communities across this country, are in a unique position to use their communications platforms to lift up the voices of the people they work with, and build brands that their constituents feel are reflective of their values and visions for our society.

Branding can no longer be a “nice-to-have” byline for social impact organizations. It cannot be the first thing to go; in fact, it needs to be prioritized, particularly for small or young organizations who don’t have any cache in the space and need to establish themselves as trustworthy. We live in uncertain times, and as our country looks for causes they care about and people they believe in to tackle them, we need to show them that we’re worthy of their time, money, and respect. How can we make the impact we want to if no one trusts us to do it?


This piece is part of a new collaborative content series produced by communications leaders and branding experts from multiple social impact organizations. You can follow the series at Social Impact BMC on Medium. This introduction is by Sam Hiersteiner, Managing Partner of Communications and Corporate Partnerships at New Profit, and Amanda Tien, Director of Creative & Marketing at Camelback Ventures.