Branding for non-profits

Think that just because your nonprofit has a great mission and a great story that you have all you need? Not so fast. But you are off to a good start. This article will walk you through some of the things you should think about when branding your NPO.

We live in a time where consumers, patrons and donors all have the power of choice, and they wield that power without discrimination. Whether it’s a TV, a toaster, or clean drinking water for villages in Africa, people have plenty of options for how, when, where, and why they part with their money. People want to engage with causes that are meaningful to them and show the world what type of person they are. The brands that we align ourselves with are badges (or bumper stickers) of honor. They reflect our values, our political views, and our personalities. Because of this, once loyalty is earned, people can become fierce advocates for your cause or organization—or they can become fierce detractors.

One of the advantages that most nonprofits have is that they have a compelling story built right in to what they do. There is very little need to justify why what they are doing is important. Just look at St. Jude (because children with cancer deserve the best treatments even if they can’t afford them), Charity Water (because everyone deserves clean water) and our very own Vets Who Code (because veterans deserve smooth transitions between active duty and civilian life, and the tech industry needs qualified developers).

However, one of the disadvantages that most nonprofits have is the ability to effectively and consistently share their story with limited resources. Remember that money, does not a great brand make, there’s a lot that goes into it, and we will barely scratch the surface. But this article should be a good jumping off point for any non-profits trying to up their brand game.

The first step in this whole mess is to understand a little bit about branding. While the term branding historically comes from the act of cattle farmers literally branding their cattle, in a modern context the term is applied to everything from your logo, to your stationery, to your website, to your packaging, all the way to how your people answer the phone and treat your customers. Branding is all of those things and more.

In short, branding is sum experience that your patrons and donors have with your organization.

When you think about your “brand” you should be thinking about what your customers think about your organization. Your brand isn’t your mission, or your vision, and it’s not just what you think about your organization. It’s what your patrons, donors, and potential donors think about your brand. Remember that your brand is a living, breathing thing, that will evolve and grow over time.

With that in mind there are some basics steps that you can follow to start building your brand: 1) gather your facts, 2) weave your narrative, 3) craft your identity, 4) strategize.


  • Your brand is the sum total experience of your organization
  • Your brand is the perception that your users have of your organization
  • Your brand is a living, breathing thing that evolves and changes over time.

The one thing that all great brands have in common is a very strong, clear, driving motivation that is reflected in everything they do and every story they tell. From Nikes belief that, “if you have a body, you’re an athlete” to Coca Cola’s, “Enjoy happiness,” the have crafted simple, effective and motivational brand platforms.

Since your organization probably already has a great story behind it, your objective now is to simplify that story and supplement it with other elements that can help you translate that story into a multi-dimensional brand. We will start off with some basic questions about your organization and then go a little more broad.

  1. Why did you start this organization? or Why does your organization exist?
  2. If you could describe your organization in three words what would they be?
  3. How do you want people to feel when they have an interaction with your organization?
  4. What are your organizations’ beliefs? (ex. Transition veteran’s are crucial to our economic success)
  5. How and why do you operate the way you do?
  6. What are your organization’s values? (Think of these as nouns. Values can be equality, honor, safety, happiness, etc…)
  7. What is the legacy that you want your organization to leave?
  8. How would you describe your organizations personality? Are you very serious and straight forward? Light hearted? Stern?

Once you’ve answered the above questions, it’s time to start weaving your narrative. Your narrative should be in the form of a story and should incorporate your organizations beliefs, values, founding, and your purpose. This narrative will inform your identity, your aesthetic, your voice, and how you want people to perceive you.

Please note, that this narrative does not have to be a customer facing document. It is for your internal team to draw inspiration and cues from when developing materials for your organization. Your platform is not a tag line, or a catch phrase, but rather a distilled version of your organization’s truth and reason for being. It can be one word or 100 words. It can be historical or future focused. The point is for it to be a source of inspiration for everything you do.

For example, let’s say you’re a non profit focused on helping teens get involved in their community, your narrative could look like this:

XYZ is all about getting our youth involved in our communities! We know that they are our future and we try to instill in them our values that we hope will make a better world: Integrity, Ingenuity, Honesty, and Dedication. Since we speak primarily with teens we have to speak authentically, simply, and with a bias towards action. And always leave them wanting more!

This isn’t meant to be a template, but if you want to feel free to use it as a starting place. It tells you what XYZ does, what their values are and how to speak in their voice.

It’s ok if you’re not a great writer. Just write down something and you can refine it over time. Check your story against these rubrics:

  1. Do you have a clear understanding of your organizations mission and values?
  2. Do you feel inspired to act or join the cause from what you’ve read?
  3. Do you have a good sense of the voice and personality of your brand? Is that voice easily translatable across media?

When thinking about your overall brand don’t underestimate the power that a strong identity holds. It is the symbol that most people will associate with your organization and will help provide cohesiveness across your company collateral.

A strong identity should be simple, bold and reflect the personality and values of your organization. Some organizations have built meaning into their logos over time, such as the Nike swoosh. Other organizations have incorporated their beliefs directly into the logo, like St. Jude.

Your identity should reflect your company and you should work with someone who can help condense your brand into an easily identifiable mark and system. Also, think about how your logo will work on various medium, i.e. print, digital, large, and small. It is so important to hire or consult with a designer at this stage. A good designer will be able to guide you through all of the necessary things to think about, and they will have the technical capabilities to provide you with all the necessary files (yes there’s more than just JPEGs).

Once you have your identity, you can start to think about how you want your organizational collateral to look. This includes brochures, flyers, websites, and emails. Ask yourself if your brand style compliments your logo and your brand personality. Show your designs to people outside your


  • Your logo is the face of your brand
  • It should reflect your organizations personality and values
  • It should work in various media and sizes
  • Hire a designer
  • Test it with people outside your organization
  • Bake at 350º for 45 minutes and enjoy!

The next step is figuring out how to implement your brand, and for this step you are definitely going to need some help. You will need to think about how you want to share your story on social media, emails, websites, brochures, in person, over the phone, and with events.

It’s important to surround yourself with a competent team that brings together a diverse set of specialties that will allow your brand to thrive. Your team needs to be on the same page with regards to how to show the brand, and the brand sounds so that your messaging is consistent and that your voice carries throughout. It’s not necessarily about being happy or angry all the time, it’s more about speaking authentically to the values that your organization holds dear. If VetsWhoCode started talking about homeless animals it would confuse donors and water the down the message.

Remember that it’s impossible to think of everything, and as Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Things will happen that will through you off the rails, either in small or big ways. But by having strong core values and beliefs you will always have something to come back to that will allow you to adjust your course and try something different.


  • Strategy is a team effort
  • Bring in people with different skill sets
  • Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face
  • Be flexible, be persistent

Andrew Lebowitz is the Director of Brand Strategy for #VetsWhoCode, a non-profit organization training veterans how to code and helping to fill the skills gap in the tech sector. To learn more visit, to help support #VetsWhoCode click on the donate button below.