Save this List! 2023’s Top 9 Branding Trends for Nonprofits

2023 is already signaling to be a banner year for many nonprofits – with more access to graphic design than ever and Gen Z entering the market. In this post-pandemic era, there’s a big question both nonprofit marketers and their followers are asking: Who are we now?

I really enjoy keeping a pulse on trends that can also help nonprofits level up year over year. As we look ahead to 2023, people are emerging from the pandemic cocoon with the possibility of a scary longstanding recession. Both for-profit and nonprofit marketers are inquiring about how their brand is connecting with people now that there’s no sign of going back to the “old way” of doing things. The big question people are asking as we enter the new year: Who are we now?

In 2022 we saw a massive rise in illustrations, serifed fonts and very cool colors. This was the rise of tech-oriented brands and even at HeartSpark we saw a significant spike in website redesigns. This was a digital revolution for many organizations, and if you were one of those to redesign your website last year, kudos! You were ahead of the curve – but you’ll still want to stay ahead of what’s coming in 2023. 

The big question people are asking as we enter the new year: Who are we now?

In 2023, I foresee a massive shift from the idealistic illustrations and bright, techy colors to more saturated, deep jewel shades. The biggest design trend that’s sure to make a splash this year is the return of mask-free photography and creating a “vibe” – the first hint that we’re starting to see an influence of GenZ in the market (finally!).

Now it’s also important to note that just because these trends are exciting and new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for your organization. If there’s an up-and-coming strategy you want to seize in the new year, make sure it aligns with your nonprofit’s core mission, personality, and values first.

Now let’s get to the good stuff!

1. Name Refresh

Many nonprofit leaders are feeling an uncomfortable tension between serving people post-COVID yet feeling stifled by a pre-pandemic mission statement or message that doesn’t seem to fit anymore. If your mission statement was written for a pre-pandemic era and you’re now trying to figure out how it works with all the “pivoting” you did over the last two years – then it may be time to re-examine how your mission, values, and messaging line up. And in some cases, your name may not be serving this new mission either. People don’t expect business as usual, but they do expect brands to be memorable and vague names or acronyms won’t cut it. 

It can be really tough to figure out if your name is actually the stumbling block for your nonprofit. If people commonly mix up your acronyms or the words within the acronyms, that’s surefire sign that your name isn’t working well. Here are three principles to test your nonprofit’s name against to see if it’s sticking with your followers.

For a quicker win, pull up your website and do a quick scan over the homepage to ensure your mission and messaging actually reflect what you do now – because if these sentiments aren’t accurate or matching up, even the most well-designed brand will fall flat. 

2. Measuring Motivation

“Donors don’t give to institutions,” said G.T. Smith, President of Davis & Elkins college. “They invest in ideas and people in whom they believe.”

Traditionally, many nonprofits databases are filled with individual demographics like age, gender, location, and giving history. And for good reason – it’s easy to gather! In 2023, we’ll see a new focus on psychographics – gathering data according to attitudes, aspirations, and motivations. This trend is brilliant for nonprofits because instead of trying to reach people by their stage of life, and making a lot of assumptions about their decision making, we can now serve them along their journey and embrace a shared sense of identity. 

Psychographics are also incredibly powerful when it comes to branding and expressing your brand personality. Understanding why people are supporting your organization is way more impactful than just knowing their demographics – we can get to the heart of their motivation and connect with them at a deeper level. Key questions to ask: What do they believe? What do they hope for? What do they need? There’s power in understanding your raving fans, earning their trust, and serving them consistently – it’s about their identity and goals, not necessarily yours. 

The best way to gather this information? Ask and listen. A great exercise for your team may be to figure out what typical journeys are like for supporters in your ecosystem. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but there may be key opportunities to surprise and delight them in a fresh way that makes them feel seen, heard, and understood. 

3. Connection at Scale

More and more nonprofits are talking about scale – the ability to activate their mission to more people at higher volumes. Although this is a tech startup-esque term, I think it creates awesome opportunities for nonprofits to take advantage of the common way that people interact with brands now. How can we use our websites, ads, automation, and social media to invite people into the work, teach them things, thank them, and celebrate our collective progress? Our donation platforms are much more than an ATM setup; they can be used to do so much more for our missions and lift some of the weight off staff and volunteers.

Creating a monthly giving program could be a reasonable first step into this type of automated process and relationship building. Not sure how to do that? Dana Snyder of Positive Equation is hosting another cohort of the popular mastermind program in January 2023 – click here to apply now!

4. Inclusive Stories

Accessibility is a movement that extends beyond just websites and buildings – representing diversity of all types, abilities, and context. You can read more about how to make your nonprofit brand welcoming to all here, but the next trend that we’ll see in 2023 will be in both gathering user-generated content and demonstrating inclusivity through visuals, graphics, and stories.

Get ahead of the trend by deciding how you want to gather photos, videos, and stories from your community in a way that makes it easy for them to share. Memory Fox is a great tool for collecting and organizing these stories – check out their site MemoryFox.io.

5. SASSSSSS

Nonprofits with a solid sense of self are starting to find and raise their voices. It’s not enough for your nonprofit to have a mission anymore. The most effective brands are bringing on the sass – and we’re here for it! Humor and wit can be incredibly powerful ways to rally your audience – and make them fall even more in love with your cause. The key here is to take a stand for your mission and be unapologetic in your stance. If you stand for something strong, then you’ll have no problem calling out injustice, inequality, and hate.

6. Ai and Templates

The majority of nonprofits are tapping into the power of Canva when it comes to creating fresh designs. We love that there’s more choice than ever when it comes to graphic design templates. But with all of this access, comes a challenge: understanding your nonprofit’s brand style and tone so you know which templates are for you and which ones are way off base.

Work with your marketing agency or graphic designers to build templates specifically for your brand rather than just pulling from Canva’s template archive. Just like after Unsplash and Pexels launched a few years ago, we foresee a lot of overused photos and templates if this trend isn’t kept in check. Get ahead by building unique templates for your organization!

If you’re looking for help with what style would work best for your nonprofit, check out our Brand Assessments. In just two weeks, we’ll take a comprehensive look at your brand and share a recommended look and color palette to match your unique mission.

*I also acknowledge that I’m a geriatric millennial who used a GIF to demonstrate this point. GIFs are not on trend for 2023. 

7. Social-First Design

Since 2020, brands have been embracing chunky serif fonts and muted color palettes, but with the rise of GenZ and reopening of the world comes bold, nostalgic color palettes and sans serif fonts with a little flare. Nonprofits can really lean into this trend by finding an aesthetic that feels harmonious with popular apps like TikTok and BeReal. Not that you have to follow the styles exactly! I mean, Instagram using Comic Sans? Please, no. But there are certainly some fresh elements available in these apps that you can account for in your own branding.

Followers are getting more and more specific about what causes they support. They’re digging more deeply into how nonprofits are helping, so break down your mission into simple, shareworthy stats that make your followers look and feel smart when they share!

8. Raw, Tactile Photography

In 2022 we saw the rise of illustrations in brand identity systems, but I believe in 2023 we’ll see the pendulum swing the other way around into emotion-rich photography that highlights all the feels and mask-free connections. Photography as a tenant of your brand will be more important than ever, and it’s critical to move beyond standard event shots or the obligatory volunteer photo – pull on the heartstrings of your brand promise and explore how you can evoke a sense of pride, empathy, humanity, or innovation through unique, professional photos.

For an impactful 1-2 punch: pair your strong, professional photos with a bold, no-nonsense sans serif font. Bonus points if it’s got a little nostalgic feel or bold, rich color palette.

9. Anti-Branding

Although we’ve seen more requests for branding than any year before, there’s an interesting balance that we’re walking many nonprofits through that’s the idea of debranding or the anti-brand. With points 1-8 we talk about finding an authentic, bold voice and design style that connects with people on a motivational level – all of this adds up to brands that are akin to the anti-hero. They generate feelings and desires without slapping a logo on everything. It’s the wit and mission that speak louder than the brand itself – especially for people looking to support nonprofits who are making a statement. 

This is especially powerful when you show your values instead of telling them. For example, your nonprofit can demonstrate its dedication to sustainability by ditching direct mail. Show people you’re innovative by embracing new tech and being smart about the data you collect. Surprise and delight your followers by keeping interactions digital and being vigilant about how you’re supporting your mission (and the planet).

Although the nonprofit sector tends to be 5-10 years behind when it comes to adopting trends in the for-profit sector, I believe that these trends are all within reach for your nonprofit in 2023. Make sure that these ideas align with your current brand personality first, but keep this in mind: even taking one little step closer to on-trend tactics could result in fresh scroll-stopping content. 

Never has the market been more ripe for nonprofits to connect and embrace their supporters at scale. So, what trend will your nonprofit embrace in 2023?

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Lauren Atherton
Lauren Atherton
With over 15 years in the creative industry, Lauren uses her award-winning design experience with agencies, startups, and Fortune 200’s to help nonprofit organizations attract support through branding and design.