Needs, Not Wants: 9 Must-Haves for Nonprofit Branding

Understanding the ins and outs of branding can be overwhelming and it can be even more difficult to know which pieces of the branding process are worth the investment. Moving beyond the basics could be the beacon your brand needs to advance your mission further, faster!

Illustration on a yellow background of a scale representing the push and pull between wants and needs your nonprofit has to build a successful brand. The scale is tilted down to the right, representing all the unnecessary things we think are required to build a brand.

Everyone knows that a successful business needs a name, logo, and website – but there are many more benefits to building a brand. Although branding may seem like a luxury for your nonprofit, these basic essentials can actually help you channel your efforts, communicate more clearly, and ultimately save time – things that most nonprofits need, not just want. Before we dive into the essential elements of a nonprofit brand, I think it’ll be helpful to define what a brand is – and what it isn’t. 

Brand is your nonprofit’s relationship with the world. Sometimes it can be measured, but overall it’s an intangible feeling or affinity. If your nonprofit has a small footprint you may not feel like you have much brand awareness, but you can still have a meaningful impact in your community. 

Branding is any effort or action that affects this relationship. Branding can be done intentionally or accidentally – either way, your nonprofit is being experienced and perceived by people, leading them to form an opinion about your organization. An alchemy of communications and marketing, branding affects the internal and external presence and pressures of your organization. The most successful branding stands on a promise – an essential truth that someone can align with and something you can stand on that cultivates deep belief. 

Brand identity is how your brand is expressed, which includes identifiable pieces like logo, tone, fonts, colors, and photography. These brand elements are how people attach meaning to your brand. There are signature characteristics that make your identity uniquely recognizable and well, you. When you learn how to flex your brand identity, you begin recognizing the influence of brand marketing, which is a tactic that can increase the awareness and reach of your brand. 

One of the best ways your nonprofit can stand out and streamline marketing efforts is to have a consistent brand identity, but here’s the crux: if you don’t address the current perceptions of your brand and underlying qualities that drive your mission, your identity will feel stale really quickly. 

Unfortunately, most nonprofit brand identities cling on way beyond the typical shelf-life of 3-5 years. If you’re thinking about updating your nonprofit’s brand identity, or it’s been way too long since you’ve had a refresh, this list of branding essentials is a great first step in the right direction.

Below are the 9 essential branding elements your nonprofit should have in its toolbox from the get-go. 

There are many more elements you could add, but these specific components create the foundation of every strong, successful brand. With each piece I’ve included actionable tips so you can better understand how it can fit into your larger branding efforts and affect other strategies of your nonprofit. 

1. Name

One of your nonprofit’s most used brand elements is its name. Choosing a name for your organization can be a daunting task, but it’s important to select a name that’s memorable, unique, and tied to an emotion. If your organization has a long name that’s been abbreviated to save time and avoid tongue twisting, then it may be time to rename your nonprofit altogether. A visual or emotional name can do more heavy lifting for your nonprofit than an acronym or boring chain of words any day, and the key is to link the name with an emotion.

If you’re interested in a how-to-guide for renaming your nonprofit, check out this article about the brain science behind good names.

2. Mission and Vision Statements

Most nonprofits have to provide a vision and mission statement just to exist, but when was the last time you looked at or challenged your mission statement? Is it memorable and actionable? A solid mission statement and vision statement inspires action and helps set the direction and “tone” of your brand. Be public and bold with your mission and people will rise to action.

3. Logo

Contrary to popular belief, your logo does not need to encompass the overall essence of your brand. Your logo is simply the mark that people attribute values and experiences to. There are a few different types of logos to consider with your nonprofit, and the more your nonprofit grows in awareness and impact the more you can refine and simplify your mark. If you’re just starting out, keep it simple.

  • Lettermark – Best for nonprofits with a long or tongue-twister-ie name. These letters should feel unique and evoke the basic personality of the brand (e.g. modern, traditional, industrial, warm)
  • Wordmark – A font-based logo that focuses on you nonprofit’s name. If your nonprofit is less than 2 years old, keep the font simple and focus on legibility.
  • Icon or Mark – A graphic-based icon that represents the brand. This lends itself particularly well to nonprofits with visual or emotional names. It can also be an abstract geometric form.
  • Logomark – A combination of an icon and a wordmark. The two pieces of the logo can live together or separately.

Now for most nonprofits, this is where the list of branding “essentials” sadly ends. Founders create a name, vision and mission statement, and that’s where they leave their brand for a few years. What many nonprofit leaders don’t realize is that there are actually a few more key pieces to incorporate in your branding efforts – that is, if you want to take your nonprofit to the next level. 

4. Values

I am constantly amazed at the number of nonprofits that do not operate on a set of defined values, nor have a hiring plan for staff or volunteers that reflects these values. Values help define the qualities and characteristics of how you do what you do, but also lend themselves naturally to help define the personality of your brand identity. Do you have a set of 3-5 core values that drive your internal team and reputation?

5. Positioning

Positioning is putting a stake in the ground that sets your organization apart from other similar nonprofits in your space. The important part here is to not overshoot, nor dilute, your positioning – if you set honest expectations for what you do and delight your audience, you will start to gain ground and credibility with your brand’s authenticity.

A simple way to start with a positioning statement is to complete this sentence: At __(nonprofit name)___ we ___(what you do)___ for ___(who you serve)____ so that they can ____vision of success___. Here are a few more details on how to craft a strong positioning statement.

6. Personality

This is often the most impactful, yet overlooked part of your brand strategy. It’s the one element that helps your staff and community “get you” the quickest! Creating a brand personality that feels familiar, yet unique is critical to creating a memorable brand identity. In many cases, the personality of the brand is reflected in the personality of the founder or core motivation of the mission.

If you’re curious about what your brand personality should be, take a look at your values and see which one of them closely matches this brand archetype wheel. These 12 archetypes can help you craft a unique voice, pick fonts and colors, as well as set the tone for your brand identity. Don’t skip this step!

7. Core Messages

Storytelling can feel like an amorphous silver bullet for marketing, but really your brand story should be able to be distilled down into four types of core messages. It’s important to define these messages because it impacts your marketing strategy and how people talk about your organization. And if you’re not directing the conversation, then the core messages of your brand are being determined by other people’s expectations and experiences. The four core messages you need are:

  • Trademarked taglines, programs, or proper names
  • Tagline
  • One-liner
  • Brief story
  • Full brand story

8. Photography

One of the best ways to share your brand authentically is through photography of actual people you serve. Unless you’re working in an industry that highly values privacy of your constituents (like foster care or trafficking rescues), it is critical that your nonprofit invest in photography that shows your mission in action. 

Keep your photos organized in a digital asset management system (DAM) like OneDrive or Google Drive. Or, learn to establish an even more sophisticated way of organizing and sorting your photos. If it’s been a few years since you’ve refreshed your gallery, it may be time to hire a professional photographer to come in and capture some new images. Since the COVID pandemic, many photographers have struggled to book sessions consistently, so I’m sure they’ll appreciate some additional business from a local organization!

9. Brand Guideline

Bringing all of these elements together in a digital brand guideline is the best way to keep your nonprofit organized and communicating consistently. Plus, having all of your strategy, links to logos and color values in one place makes for a lot fewer headaches when it comes to communicating your brand to the internal team or external consultants.

Two of my favorite tools for creating a brand guideline are Frontify and Canva. There are many attractive templates available, but the real key to building a brand guide – whether you need a one-page guide or a comprehensive document – is to make sure it’s easy to use, otherwise no one will reference it!

How does a nonprofit grow organically over time? 

By embracing a sound brand strategy that can set clear expectations and actually deliver on promises. Branding is not something you can affect overnight or by putting your design on repeat, but by getting the essentials in place you can develop consistent experiences that delight your community and endear people to your mission.

For many nonprofits, it can be tough to come to a consensus between your staff and board, so it can be helpful to hire an external consultant to provide an objective assessment of your brand. At HeartSpark, we’ve worked with nonprofits of all sizes throughout the United States to help them refine their brand strategy and identity. Every successful project always begins with an honest assessment of where the branding is currently at.

Interested in getting a professional, unbiased opinion so you can set up a solid gameplan? Take a look at our case studies or complete this form to schedule a brand assessment for your nonprofit. In less than two weeks you’ll have an honest assessment of your branding and a clear path forward for your team.