First Impressions – 4 Tips for Creating a Memorable Nonprofit Brand

We’ve all heard the old adage by Will Rogers, “You can’t get a second chance at a first impression,” but how do you know what kind of impression your nonprofit is currently making, if any impression at all? And moreover, how much can we influence it?

Illustration adapted from Adobe Stock (Image #365734580)

“Two things remain irretrievable: time and a first impression.”

In the last few weeks, I’ve been doing A LOT of listening. Diving into countless interviews and in-depth research, I’ve been sifting through the facts and organizing ideas. Why? I have a potential course in the works – one that will help make brand strategy and design more accessible to nonprofits. More on that coming soon!

In the meantime, I want to share some immediate lessons that can help you now. One theme that has come up in almost every conversation I’ve had with nonprofit Executive Directors are the ideas of perception and resonance. 

What is Brand Perception?

Perception alone is defined as a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression. I would argue that the same definition applies to your nonprofit’s brand, yet the method of getting there is much more precarious. With nonprofit branding, we often try to shape the overall perception by way of many small impressions. This makes ‘control’ a more dynamic animal!

Imagine that each constituent, volunteer, donor, and staff member has a jar that your brand continually deposits into or withdrawals from. Now, how much and how often you deposit/withdraw is up to you, but it ultimately adds up to the overall perception of your nonprofit. Most nonprofits make all of these transactions manually: processing donations, sending thank you notes, sharing about an event, training volunteers, organizing appreciation parties, distributing swag, making thank you calls, mailers – ugh, exhausting!

But what if there was a way to flip the script so that your brand did the heavy lifting and facilitated the critical first impression? 

Even with all these tedious attempts to generate support, many nonprofits are starting at a disadvantage because their brand doesn’t really demonstrate who they are. You may be telling people about your mission, but you’re missing a trick when it comes to targeting the heart and instantly gaining trust and respect – something that is intuitive and essential with first impressions.

Here’s the secret: People are attracted to organizations that they perceive to already have momentum.

If a donor or volunteer lands on your website and it looks amateur, they subconsciously assume that every encounter with your organization is going to be disorganized and lackluster, even though that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although we don’t like to think that people judge a book by its cover, our brains are programmed to do just that! In fact, as consumers we do it all the time with for-profit businesses – and it’s just a split-second decision. Looking good actually helps for-profit businesses and it suprisingly helps nonprofit brands.

Nonprofits have got to start caring about their appearance, and thus their first impression. In my professional opinion as a marketing expert, a relaxed approach to branding is also somewhat responsible for the decline of trust that we’re experiencing in the nonprofit sector. If we don’t take the time to look the part, people can sense that lack of care and confidence. To take it one step further, folks want to be a part of an organization that looks legit and is going to make them look like a rockstar, too.

When you think of first impressions, your logo or website may come to mind, but there are 4 more important (perhaps unexpected) places to invest time and money so your nonprofit makes an unforgettable first impression. 

1. Photography

People process images 60,000 times faster than text. 60,000X! Since photos and videos are processed so much quicker than graphics or writing, it’s essential for your nonprofit to have a gallery of professional, high-quality images that constantly feel current. Get new pictures taken periodically, at a minimum twice per year! It’s critical that your photos represent your constituents in a dignified and professional manner, but don’t forget to let your hair down and have some fun and action in the photos, too! The Adventure Project just put out an awesome article on how this plays out in real life with your nonprofit’s values.

Bottom line: people respond quickest to photos and it’s worth it to have great photos your nonprofit can use all year round. Build a relationship with a local photographer who understands your mission and values, then let them run the photoshoot and edit them in alignment with your style. Avoid stock photography at all costs!

To be more inclusive to disabled persons visiting your website, add detailed Alt Text descriptions to every photo on your site. Think about it like describing the photo to a friend over the phone. Screen readers then convert this description and read it to the website visitor. 

2. Copywriting

Although images are processed faster than text, it is still important for your brand to have a consistent voice and message. Plus, if your nonprofit is a little more lighthearted, this is a great place to let your personality shine and have some fun! Perhaps one of the most overlooked pieces of a nonprofit’s brand, copywriting can actually be one of the most influential in building a great first impression. Many nonprofits take themselves too seriously and come across a little stiff in their wording, rather than matching the tone of their cause. If you’re tackling a tough issue, be stern but aspirational. If you work in the animal welfare sector, weave in some common phrases for pet-lovers. Great copywriting is an awesome way to relate to your community and speak to their hearts in a shared tone and language.

3. Reviews

To further demonstrate your nonprofit’s trustworthiness and back up a great first impression, invest in gathering reviews and ratings from your loyal fanbase. Reviews carry a ton of weight in our digital age and are the social proof that builds trust, demonstrates momentum and may even secure more funding for your nonprofit. Google My Business, Candid, and Charity Navigator are great places to start building your rating – and all 3 are free! If you have some big donors or corporations, consider asking them if they’d be willing to let you put their logo on your website alongside a quote and backlink to their website. 

4. Name

I have a real beef with the overuse of acronyms. Mostly because I’m old school when it comes to clear communication, and acronyms can feel exclusive. In other words, it makes me feel like a noob to “not be in the know” that ED isn’t erectile dysfunction or that DAF isn’t “dope as…” well, you know. Not only for everyday terms – nonprofits also rely way too heavily on acronyms to name their organizations, and honestly? It’s tough to position, style, and doesn’t stick. People don’t remember acronyms; they remember causes and names that intrigue them. Plus, a name with an obvious mission is much more brag-worthy to friends and family.

A few months ago, Devon Thomas Treadwell wrote about how a good name for your nonprofit can make all the difference in your first impression, as well as tugging on the heart instead of the mind. Changing your nonprofit’s name is a huge undertaking and shouldn’t be taken lightly, but if your team struggles to remember what your name means then it may be just what your nonprofit needs to make the best first impression.

Now let’s be clear, an unforgettable first impression is not a bandaid for a dysfunctional organization, but a nonprofit that is positioned well with a bold visual identity is remarkable. Branding for nonprofits really matters – even in 2022! Plus, you’ll save marketing dollars with a solid foundation that will generate the best first impression for years to come.

Your nonprofit may not get a second chance at its first impressions, but I would argue that you can affect and/or reinvent it by investing in your brand strategy and visual identity. People are quick to make decisions about your nonprofit and want to be a part of organizations that look successful and are building momentum. By investing in the four assets listed above, your organization can change its perception, garner more support, and maybe even reduce the manual labor on your team – all while making a greater impact for your mission.

Picture of 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.