Aging Like a Fine Wine: The 6 Key Stages of Your Nonprofit Brand’s Life

From founding days to middle age and succession – your nonprofit will go through many life stages and maybe even personality changes. In this article we’ll share the natural progression of a brand, as well as the best (and worst) times to work on your nonprofit’s brand identity.

We love the nonprofits we get to work with! Honestly, thinking of each nonprofit as a living being with its own heart, brain, and personality – that’s what enables us to encourage character and spark meaningful growth at the right times. We celebrate when nonprofits are just starting to walk or run, and assist founders who are ready to pick out new clothes after a growth spurt or new season of life. If you’ve been running your nonprofit for a while, you’ve most likely experienced the many painful and euphoric stages of change that come with success. Sometimes you’re tough on your organization and sometimes you just bask in the glow of a proud parental moment. 

Personally, my husband and I don’t have our own children, but I’m the proud auntie to many kiddos both inside and outside of our family circle. It is such a joy to watch these kiddos grow up and experience the opportunities and challenges that come with every new stage of life – much like the life cycle of a brand.

When I think about nonprofits as creatures with their own quirks, personalities and potential, I can’t help but draw a parallel between the life cycles of humanhood with those of your brand. We’ve been getting quite a few questions recently about recognizing when it’s the right time to evolve your brand personality. The best answer? Your brand identity will change several times over the life cycle of your nonprofit. But if you do it well, your brand gets better with age, like a fine wine. 

Your brand identity will change several times over the life cycle of your nonprofit. But if you do it well, your brand gets better with age, like a fine wine.

Here are the main stages of a brand’s life cycle along with the best times to evolve, taking advantage of natural seasons of change and growth. Keep in mind this cycle isn’t always linear; some brands will flow through many of these growth cycles several times as they adapt and evolve. Though the timeframe isn’t as fixed as it is with human development, this metaphor can be a great tool for recognizing where your brand is at – and when it should be encouraged to grow.

Newborn

  • Age: 0-2
  • Goal: Awareness
  • Usually born out of a need or struggle, your nonprofit enters the world bright-eyed and full of opportunity. You’re counting the months it’s been alive and caring for its basic needs. 
  • Although many startups receive millions of dollars in funding, this is not the time to pursue a rigid brand identity because we have no knowledge of who this wonderful young being is yet! Keep your visual language simple and focus on connecting with the people you serve and refining the character of your organization.

Growth

  • Age: 3-19 years
  • Goal: Identity + Communications
  • From “terrible twos” through the teenage years, this stage is wrought with growth, challenges, mistakes, but also a whole lot of fun. Your organization is driven by innovation and a team of young, passionate people who are eager to experience success, no matter the cost. You’re starting to get notoriety and clearly understand who you serve, how you do it, and who’s on your team to make it happen.
  • Your board is beginning to grow with stable, resourceful people, and donors are starting to consistently give to your cause. People “get it”!
  • This is the perfect time for your brand to capture the energy of the team and develop its own unique look and voice. 
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Prime

  • Age: 20-39
  • Goal: Advertising & Marketing
  • Your nonprofit has made it through its painful teen years and is starting to run at full stride. You’ve got a few employees and volunteers with defined roles and responsibilities.
  • This is the time to invest in advertising and marketing – put your brand identity to work by attracting new audiences, bigger donors, and even corporate sponsors.

Mid-Life Crisis

  • Age 40-50
  • Goal: Health & Culture
  • Your nonprofit starts noticing the young whipper-snappers thinking they’ve invented the wheel when you’ve created the wheel. This may seem like the time to reinvent your nonprofit as a “young and hip” brand, but like most midlife crises it can go sour (and get expensive) really quickly.
  • This stage is handled best by taking the internal temperature of your organization and focusing on health and culture. Then, out of that self-reflection and fine-tuning can come some brand identity refreshes.

Sunset

  • Age 50-65
  • Goal: Reinvention
  • At this stage your brand has a loyal following and your programs are on autopilot – it’s like another season in your prime, but things move a little bit slower than they used to. You’ve got a solid team and know who you are, but you may feel internal tension between efficiency and innovation.In other words, you have to work really hard to fight bloating and resting on your laurels. 
  • Reinvest in your brand now that you’ve got things “figured out,” but be sure to include volunteers and donors from other generations so you don’t come across as tone-deaf or out of touch. Look for strategic partnerships with younger nonprofits in your same focus area or corporate sponsors looking for an expert.
  • This is the time to leverage your strengths to guide others – take a tip from Tony Bennett releasing an album with Lady Gaga or Wendy’s getting sassy on Twitter or Girl Scouts teaming up with Kristen Bell for an April Fool’s Joke. Know your strengths, but loop in the next generation in an authentic way. This requires being really picky and waiting for the right opportunities, but it can be done!

Legacy

  • Age 65+
  • Goal: Succession
  • At this stage there’s one of two routes forward, typically spurred on by the retirement of your founder: either the organization dissolves or it’s passed on to the next generation. If you’ve prepared your nonprofit in the sunset stage, typically there’s a smooth transition and the organization goes through a new rebirth with minimal disruptions.
  • In this phase, the more communicative and public you are with the succession, the better it will go. Celebrate the history of your nonprofit and dedication to a new phase and future. Guide your board and key donors through the transition, giving everyone an opportunity to be heard.

At its best, your nonprofit’s brand identity just gets better with age instead of undergoing tiresome reinventions every decade. No one likes to look back at old high school years only to regret their “emo” phase or a trendy – but fleeting – hairstyle. If you’re staying true to your vision and mission, let those foundational principles guide your brand identity over time and fight for your heart to shine through.

So, what stage of this life cycle is your nonprofit in?

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Lauren Atherton
Lauren Atherton
With over 13 years in the creative industry, Lauren uses her award-winning design experience with agencies, startups, and Fortune 200’s to manage HeartSpark’s team of creative professionals.