Branding for nonprofits

Telling your story as a campaigning organisation

Mike Andrews
Sep 21 · 8 min read

Just as you can form a first impression of a new friend in a split second, it only takes a glance for someone to form a story about your organisation. Today’s visually saturated world only gives you a limited window of exposure for your audience to understand who you are and what you’re about, so your communications need to be imbued with a sense of your personality and purpose as a group of people — this arguably counts even more for campaigning organisations than it does for commercial businesses.

For many small organisations, creative skills are employed as and when they’re needed — a logo, a poster, a social media graphic, a website and so on. This is completely understandable, especially when you’re reliant on pockets of funding attached to specific projects, or perhaps good will and pro-bono creative support. But while this can result in well-designed, effective individual pieces of communication, it also creates a lack of consistency between different outputs. When each piece is considered individually, you can end up with a confused overall brand perception that lacks coherence and emotional substance.

Sometimes, no matter the size or experience of your organisation, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking more holistically about the creative process.

Component parts create overall perception

When we talk about branding we’re usually thinking of a brand’s component parts — logo, fonts, colours etc — but a brand is really how an organisation seems, or how we perceive it. A brand can be funny, cold, inviting, playful, irritating, lovable — in much the same way as we might talk about a friend or colleague. We make these subconscious associations in our heads, and without thinking we assess how they might fit into our story of the world.

Global Alliance for a Green New Deal: Component parts create overall perception

In this way, a brand can itself be thought of as a story — one that’s both what an organisation wants to tell the world and one that is inferred and shaped by its audience. All the elements that form the visual and verbal representation of a brand come together to form that story in the mind of the audience.

By investing some time and energy in a fully thought-out branding process, you can establish your coherent story and give everyone who needs them the tools with which they can tell it, while avoiding confusion and inefficiencies.

The Branding Process

There is a tried-and-tested process for creating a brand — it’s designed to galvanise your sense of self as an organisation, as well as open up unexpected ways of expressing your message to your audiences, and it typically consists of four broad steps: Establishing, Exploring, Refining, and Producing.

The process can be adapted to the needs and practical limits of your organisation, but it takes time — and, crucially, space and contemplation — from all partners to get the best results.

1. Establishing your story

Before all the individual elements of a brand are created, you have to establish the outline of your story. This is the time to dig deep and unearth some answers to the fundamental questions about your organisation’s operations and ambitions. It’s not dissimilar to creating a business plan or funding proposal — in fact it can help with that process too — but it’s about converting these more functional aims and intentions into an emotive narrative that can be easily understood and engaged with.

These foundational tenets are the seeds out of which the visual expression of your brand will grow. At this early stage, it’s important to focus on the emotive, descriptive attributes of your organisation, and not about how you think it should look or sound (that will come later):

Vision

The big-picture-dreaming you get to do at the start of something new — your vision of the world and your role in it in a year, five years, or ten years. This will ensure your brand fully fits — not just who you are now, but who you want to be.

Values

What do you stand for? What’s most important to you? You might value compassion and transparency, or straightforwardness and efficiency. What does this tangibly mean for you and your colleagues, comrades and co-conspirators? These values should inform how you do things, and how you present yourself to the world.

Difference

Every organisation has a reason to exist. A need or focus that the founders felt was lacking in the space they work in. Whatever makes you different, what makes you necessary—this is how you define yourself amongst (and apart from) your peers.

Audience

Who are you talking to, and what do they think? Are they sipping an oat flat white while scrolling through twitter, or leafing through the telegraph with a pint of bitter? Maybe you need to be relevant in the coffee shop and the country club. It’s often taken for granted, but important to dissect in detail and prioritise who you want to engage with your story.

Peers

Who’s out there doing similar stuff? What do you like about them, and what do you want to avoid? Are there organisations in other spaces that do something you like? Who makes you jealous? Who do you admire? You want to find your own unique angle, while taking cues from the successful organisations around you.

Establishing your story: areas of exploration and visual directions

2. Exploring visual directions

Here is where it starts to come to life. Using the information gathered in the first stage, we can start to explore shifts in tone and approach to figure out how best to tell your story. Are you a bold, urgent, action-oriented organisation, or is there room for a sense of humour and irony? Do you celebrate the wins or grieve the losses? You could be bright, vibrant and playful, or straight-talking, to the point and minimal. Perhaps it’s a mix of the above depending on the context.

Exploring the landscape

Typically the exploration phase will start with an audit of the visual surroundings of your organisation, identifying similar organisations working in the same space, other brands that speak to your intended audience, visual trends and even things to avoid.

Creating directions

This phase usually culminates in a presentation of a few different visual directions. There will be myriad different ways that your brand could be expressed, and each creative will find different expressions — this is about finding the energy and tone that feels right for your brand. Sometimes the best way to do this is to try two or three completely different approaches and gauge them on a spectrum — other times it can be an exploration in the details and nuances within a certain direction.

Music Declares Emergency need to communicate urgency and impact in the same breath as poking fun or using irony to engage their audience

A spirit of experimentation

This is the really exciting stage where we can explore nuances and how they play out visually, and it should be approached in a spirit of collaboration and experimentation. Sometimes things come up that seem completely wrong, but it’s here that we can push boundaries and find the edges. We’re on this journey together, and allowing for wrong turns makes it easier in the long-run to find the right path. Regular check-ins ensure that if we start to go the wrong way, it’s only a few paces to get back to the main track and carry on hiking forward.

Most often it comes down to how a visual direction feels — and while people will usually have a lot of different opinions, it’s surprising how quickly a consensus can be reached when the groundwork has been done properly!

3. Refining your identity

Once this stage of open exploration is complete, we use a couple of rounds of feedback to refine the visual — keeping what we agree works, discarding or tweaking what isn’t so successful. That can mean taking forward one of the routes from the previous round and developing it, or it can mean taking the overall response from all of the routes to create a new, more refined direction.

It’s important to allow time and space around this stage, so that key decisions can be made between all the stakeholders in your organisation, eventually galvanising around a clear direction which can then be converted into a useful set of tools.

Global Alliance for a Green New Deal: Launching an alliance of members from all over the world requires an impactful call to action and a bold, consistent visual language.

4. Producing usable assets and guidance

The final phase is where the brand toolkit and launch deliverables are created. Invariably this will include a logo, colours, fonts and other visual assets like graphic devices or illustrations.

Letters to the Earth: Visual tools and guidance

Beyond those assets, it’s worth thinking in advance about what you’ll need to launch your brand — to start telling your story. For smaller organisations it could simply be a couple of graphics, or editable templates (with some guidance on how to use them) so that members of staff or volunteers can easily create social posts. Or if you have a bit more budget, how could you best use it? Do you want to set your stall with a video or animation, or commit some money to buy some ad space? What are the one or two things that you will get the most use out of? It’s about giving you the tools you need to tell your own story, as well as guidance and direction to be able to brief any future collaborators.

Why go through a branding process?

Embarking on the branding process can seem like a big lift for a small organisation, but it can be revolutionary in terms of how your brand is perceived. In a visionary sense it can help inspire people to your cause, and on a practical level it will provide you with both the direction and the tools to make quick decisions about the things you want to create, and even the actions or opportunities you want to take. It can help increase cohesion in your organisation and even aid recruitment: like a football team wearing the same shirt, your brand is something you all have in common, and you can attract people who want to wear the same stripes.

If you take on this process fully, you’ll emerge with a renewed sense of self, and a fully realised position to present to funders, collaborators, volunteers and punters alike.

Mike Andrews is Design Director at Glimpse — a creative collective working at the intersection of ecological and social campaigning and commercial creativity. If you’re interested in talking more about the creative process in the non-profit sector, email mike@weglimpse.co

The Glimpse Collective

“What we dream of is already present in the world.”