United Way, Feeding America, The Salvation Army, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the American National Red Cross are among some of the most recognized nonprofit brands in the United States.
Collectively, these nonprofits bring in billions of dollars in donations every year. In fact, they are among the most recognized for-profit and nonprofit brands in the world.
It takes a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money to build a world-class nonprofit brand.
How can new or newer nonprofits compete against so many established nonprofits?
The secret lies in building a strong brand identity.
Today, brand identity is the best way a nonprofit can gain a competitive advantage for volunteers, donations, and recognition, over other nonprofits.
This is the complete guide on how to create a unique and memorable nonprofit brand identity in 2021.
This guide includes detailed advice on getting a memorable custom logo design for your nonprofit and tons of insights and actionable tips to help you build an authentic and memorable nonprofit brand.
The Definitive Nonprofit Branding Guide
- What is nonprofit branding?
- Creating your nonprofit brand strategy
- Brand identity research: people, other nonprofits, and your brand
- Brand identity design: the building blocks of brand identity
- Designing your brand identity
- Create a brand style guide (brand guidelines)
- How to translate your brand identity into nonprofit marketing
- Common nonprofit branding mistakes
What is nonprofit branding?
Branding, brand identity brand, and brand image are related but different concepts. Yet, many people mistakenly use those terms interchangeably.
People often use the word “brand” to talk about logos.
But, a logo is not a brand. A logo is a visual symbol for a nonprofit (or another type of organization), but a logo doesn’t represent the organization’s entire brand identity.
Put another way: a designer’s job isn’t to create a nonprofit brand. Designers design and create a nonprofit brand identity.
A brand is the sum total of the experience people have with your organization. Originally, the term ‘brand’ referred to the mark that cattle ranchers put (‘branded’) on their cattle. But the concept of ‘brand’ has evolved to include much more than a single visual element.
Your nonprofit brand lives in everyday interactions your nonprofit has with its volunteers and donors, and includes the images you share, the messages you post on your nonprofit website, the content of your materials about your nonprofit and its mission, your presentations, and your posts on social networks.
Importantly, your brand image is not what you say it is.
Your brand image is how your volunteers, donors, and the general public perceive your nonprofit.
You may want volunteers, donors, and the general public to see your brand as innovative, fresh, and socially conscious.
But what’s most important isn’t what you want – but how others actually see your nonprofit brand.
That’s your brand image.
What is brand identity?
Brand identity is the visible elements of a brand, including color, design, and a brand's logo. It's the manner in which a nonprofit or another organization presents itself to the public. Put simply: brand identity is what you, customers, and prospective customers can see.
Brand identity consists of various visual elements, including but not limited to:
- logo or wordmark
- different logo variations
- key brand colors and color palette
- typographic treatments
- a consistent style for images and content
- library of graphical elements
- style guide
- your nonprofit’s visual identity on social media
Large, successful nonprofits pay careful attention to their visual identity. Nearly a decade ago, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, appointed a director of global brand and innovation. And many well-known nonprofits including Oxfam International, GBCHealth, and many others, have undertaken comprehensive rebranding projects.
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In the for-profit space, a successful brand identity is one of the company’s most valuable assets. In fact, a large part of the value of companies like Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike, and others is reflected in the value of their brand.
This is also true for nonprofit brands.
Several decades ago, most nonprofits focused on building a nonprofit brand identity that would help them fundraise. And while that focus was appropriate, it neglected the many other advantages strong branding can bring to a nonprofit.
Strong branding gives nonprofits a competitive advantage not just when it comes to fundraising, but also in expressing the organization’s mission statement and vision, recruitment of volunteers, galvanizing community support, and presenting a compelling, socially-driven focus.
Remember that whether you intentionally create a strong brand identity or ignore it, you will still be presenting an image to volunteers, donors, and the general public.
So, if you want a strong brand identity and brand image, be proactive and deliberate in helping shape how others perceive your nonprofit brand. If you leave your brand identity to chance, you lose the ability to shape the conversation about your brand.
Creating Your Nonprofit Brand Strategy
As we discussed above, your company brand is defined by how people perceive your company, not by what you say the brand is.
Every decision your organization makes and every action that it takes affects the brand.
Poor design, a weak brand identity, ineffective marketing, inconsistent messaging, and bad partnerships can tarnish a brand.
Instead of leaving the public perception of your brand to chance, it’s always a good practice to build and shape your brand.
Doing so doesn’t guarantee that the public will perceive your brand exactly as you intend. But it will help shape public perception.
Your brand identity is the face of your nonprofit. It builds credibility and trust with your volunteers, donors, and the general public. And, it reinforces your nonprofit’s mission statement and values, and it helps you find new customers and delight existing customers.
A brand strategy can help you do all of these things.
What is a brand strategy?
A brand strategy is how your organization will build, shape, and share your brand with the public.
Why do you need a brand strategy for your nonprofit?
Every nonprofit has a brand and brand identity.
The only question is whether you’ll leave your brand and brand identity to chance or take deliberate steps to help shape the public’s perception of your brand and branding.
No successful nonprofit has ever left its brand image, brand identity, and branding to chance.
Instead, smart nonprofits are intentional and public about their mission statement and values, among other things.
Brand strategy is your plan for how you’ll help shape the public perception of your nonprofit brand.
Here, the “public” includes your volunteers, donors, and the general public, as well as anyone who connects in any way with your nonprofit brand, whether in person, via email, on social media, or offline.
How do you build an effective brand strategy?
There are three phases to develop an effective brand strategy for most nonprofits: discovery, identity, and execution.
Phase 1: Discovery
If you’re launching a new nonprofit and don’t yet have a brand identity, discovery is easy.
Your nonprofit is not known to anyone and there’s nothing to discover. You can proceed to create your brand identity and can move to Phase 2.
But if you have an established nonprofit and are looking to build an effective brand strategy, be sure that you don’t skip this step.
Before you can define your modified or new brand identity, you must understand your existing brand identity and objectively look at all factors that influence how your nonprofit presents itself publicly.
This includes evaluating your volunteers, your donors and prospective donors, your nonprofit sector, your vision, mission statement, and values, your brand identity, brand image, and your brand.
1. Start by evaluating your existing core identity
Your core identity is often defined by your nonprofit’s vision (why your nonprofit exists), mission (what your nonprofit does), and values (the beliefs that guide your nonprofit’s actions).
You may already have your vision, mission statement, and values documented, but don’t worry if you don’t.
Most nonprofits chose to document these and put them on their website.
The important exercise for existing nonprofits is to evaluate whether their original vision, mission statement , and values are still relevant. Here are some helpful questions you can ask:
- Are there elements that have emerged in the nonprofit’s culture that aren’t reflected in that vision, mission statement, and values?
- Are some of the existing elements poorly defined or no longer valid?
- What’s most important to your nonprofit?
- Do your existing brand identity and marketing properly communicate your core identity?
2. Conduct market research and perform a competitor analysis
Once you understand your core identity, the next step involves market research and competitor analysis.
Yes, even though you run a nonprofit, you have competitors. Many of them compete for the same volunteers and donors that you seek. Some of them don’t directly compete with you but fundraising can be a zero-sum game – donors don’t have unlimited funds to donate to worthy causes.
Here are some useful questions to ask when you conduct market research:
- How big is your nonprofit market segment?
- Has your market changed since the time you started your nonprofit?
- How has it changed?
It’s not enough to understand your market to develop a strong brand identity. You also must evaluate your competitors to understand where your nonprofit is positioned in the nonprofit sector.
3. Develop personas for your target volunteers and donors
Personas help you figure out:
- Who your volunteers and donors are,
- What their goals and frustrations are,
- Where they spend their time,
- When they’re the most active or available,
- Why they make certain decisions, and
- How they interact with and think about your mission statement and values.
4. Evaluate how people perceive your brand and your brand identity
Remember that you should evaluate both internal (your staff members and volunteers) and external (everyone else) perceptions of your nonprofit’s brand image.
Do people react positively, neutrally, or negatively when they hear your brand name?
The insights from these evaluations will help you to understand the current perceptions of your brand image and the things you may need to change to improve those perceptions and your overall brand image.
Phase 2: Brand Identity
1. Define your core brand identity
Once you understand how your nonprofit brand is currently perceived, you can begin to define a new identity for your nonprofit.
To remind you, your core identity is often defined by your nonprofit’s vision (why your nonprofit exists), mission statement (what your nonprofit does), and values (the beliefs that guide your nonprofit’s actions).
If you’re starting a new nonprofit, you start with a blank sheet of paper and have the opportunity to define each of these.
If you have an existing nonprofit, you evaluated your core identity in the discovery phase. You now have a chance to evolve that identity to better match your current/future vision, mission, and values.
2. Articulate your brand positioning
Your brand positioning explains how your nonprofit is different from your competitors.
Often, your positioning can be summarized in one or two sentences to explain what you do better than everyone else. Maybe 100% of all donations reach their intended beneficiaries. Or, you help in an area that most nonprofits find difficult to help. Whatever your special sauce is – figure it out.
3. Develop your nonprofit brand identity design assets
When you understand your brand and the components that define brand identity (colors, typography, shapes, etc.) it’s time for you to work with your designer to develop the creative elements that will help you build a brand and give life to your brand identity. These include your logo, web design, product packaging, brochures, and more.
4. Develop your nonprofit brand voice and how you communicate
To build a strong nonprofit brand, brand identity, and brand image, you must consistently and uniformly talk about your brand, both internally and externally.
Pick a consistent brand voice and make sure that your communications are clear, focused, and support your positioning.
Make sure that your brand identity is clearly and consistently reflected in your digital marketing and traditional marketing.
Your content marketing stories and your offline and digital marketing should all consistently showcase your brand identity.
Phase 3: Execution
Once you’ve completed discovery and developed your core brand identity, you must find the right way to communicate about your brand identity and brand through marketing (both digital marketing and traditional marketing).
Brand Identity Research
Before you dive into designing the elements of your nonprofit's brand identity and building your nonprofit brand, you must understand how your brand is currently perceived, your donors and volunteers, and your competitors.
If you’re building a new nonprofit brand, you can skip this first part below (understanding your brand).
But if you have an existing brand, this is a critical first step in building a more effective brand identity for your nonprofit organization.
Understanding your brand
If your brand isn’t healthy, neither is your nonprofit.
That’s because the health of your brand impacts both people’s awareness of your organization and your bottom line.
A strong brand is not a luxury to be enjoyed only by companies like Nike or Coca-Cola. It is a key factor in the success and prosperity of all businesses and nonprofits, regardless of their revenues. Your brand health is guaranteed to have a significant impact on the consumer awareness of your brand AND your bottom line. It directly affects your ability to sell, to fundraise, to hire the best employees, and to grow. A healthy brand is the hallmark of a company or nonprofit that is prepared to prosper.
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You have to develop a higher-level understanding of your nonprofit and the context in which it operates.
That’s where a SWOT analysis can help. It’s a useful tool used by many successful for-profit companies and one that can help most nonprofits.
By examining your nonprofit’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats you may find a path to new growth in volunteer and fundraising.
What is a SWOT analysis?
A SWOT analysis is a strategic planning framework used to take a big-picture look at the internal and external factors impacting your brand and organization.
“SWOT” stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.
The first half of SWOT (strengths and weaknesses) addresses the internal factors within your organization or brand that are working for and against you.
Opportunities and threats (the second half of SWOT) are, of course, the positive and negative external factors your brand must navigate through.
This kind of holistic, high-level thinking is valuable and necessary to ensure that you don’t get lost chasing after details that don’t deliver the return on investment your organization needs to survive. This makes SWOT analysis a vitally useful tool.
Questions that can help you conduct a SWOT analysis:
- Does your nonprofit have a unique backstory or mission?
- In what areas does your nonprofit regularly excel?
- What strengths or unique skills do your staff members and volunteers possess?
- Is your nonprofit well-funded or does it own other useful resources it can rely on?
- Does your nonprofit have a proprietary focus that can’t be obtained elsewhere?
- In what respects is your brand well-perceived?
- In what ways is your brand aligned with your current mission statement and direction?
- What aspects of your brand are authentic?
- Which elements of your brand image resonate with your target audience?
- What parts of your brand identity are communicated well?
- In what areas does your nonprofit regularly perform poorly?
- Does your workforce suffer any consistent weaknesses? (poor morale, lack of training, etc.)
- Does your nonprofit lack resources such as time, staff, or funds?
- Are your nonprofit’s goals unfocused?
- Do you lack strategies for moving forward?
- Are there elements of your brand image that are inauthentic?
- Is your nonprofit failing to follow through on any brand promises?
- What parts of your brand identity are poorly communicated?
- Are any brand messages failing to resonate with your target audience?
- What aspects of your brand are perceived poorly?
- Can you fill a niche that is currently empty or under-represented?
- Could you partner with another non-profit or for-profit organization to gain exposure, financial support, or consumer goodwill?
- Will changes in state or federal legislation help your nonprofit in any way?
- Are improving economic trends likely to impact your nonprofit?
- Can your brand authentically align itself with any popular causes?
- Do any current trends benefit your nonprofit or brand image?
- Is there an existing unsung aspect of your brand image that you could highlight?
- What are your competitors offering that you can’t compete with?
- Are your competitors doing especially well engaging the target audience on social media?
- Are downward economic trends likely to impact your nonprofit?
- Will changes in state or federal legislation hinder your nonprofit in any way?
- Are any of your vendors or suppliers unreliable, increasing their prices, or going out of business?
- Are there any cultural shifts that may harm your nonprofit or brand image?
- Will changes in weather negatively impact your nonprofit?
- Are there any current events that may cast any elements of your brand in a negative light?
- Is your nonprofit brand aligned with any negative entities, organizations, or ideologies?
- Are any competitors attempting to discredit your brand?
That’s a lot of information to process. To save you some time if you’re in a hurry, look at the bigger picture and ask these 3 important questions to better understand your brand.
1. Does your brand support your nonprofit strategy?
Every healthy nonprofit should have a forward-looking strategy.
For your brand to be healthy, it must align with and support that strategy.
A misaligned brand will create cognitive dissonance for your volunteers, donors and the general public. It will also create a confusing brand image and brand identity, and will undermine your efforts to succeed.
A brand image or brand identity that undermines your strategy does not reflect a healthy nonprofit brand.
2. Is your brand identity consistent?
An inconsistent brand identity is confusing and unreliable. These are traits that drive people away from your nonprofit, not attract them.
If your brand identity constantly changes, it’s hard for volunteers, donors, and the general public to wrap their minds around what it’s about. And, it’s even harder to gain trust, confidence, and loyalty.
Here are some additional questions to help you evaluate your brand identity for consistency…
Is your brand identity design visually consistent?
Visual consistency helps build recognition of your brand.
The colors, visual styles, and fonts on your website should look like your social media accounts, which should look like your logo, which should look like your… you get the idea.
Is your brand message consistent?
Your brand needs a cohesive message. And, that message should come from your brand’s core values and strategies.
If your nonprofit tries to be too many things at once, the message becomes scattered and the brand identity is diluted.
It’s hard to be known for something when you fail to present a consistent message about what your nonprofit should be known for.
Or worse, if your brand messaging contradicts itself, you will lose people’s trust.
Contradicting messages serve as proof that your nonprofit is not to be trusted.
Inconsistent messaging is a sign of an unhealthy brand and a weak brand identity.
Does your brand behave consistently?
Your brand promises must be consistent with the reality of the brand experience volunteers, donors, and the general public has with your nonprofit.
Failure to deliver on a brand promise is a sign of an unhealthy brand.
3. Does your brand identity resonate with your target audience?
No matter how well your brand identity supports your nonprofit’s strategies, or how consistent it is, if it fails to connect with your audience, then your brand identity is not doing its job.
But, measuring your brand’s public reception is a bit trickier than examining it for consistency or internal strategy alignment. You’re going to need some brand health metrics to track.
Marketing intelligence experts at Datorama recommend tracking your branded impressions, internet search volume, and the performance of branded keywords (the use of your brand name on business cards, in messages, posts, etc.).
Understanding your audience
The first step to building a strong brand identity is to understand your audience and what they want and need. This includes volunteers and donors. We recommend you ask the following questions:
- Who are they? – Are they male, female, or both? Are they Boomers or Millennials? Where are they from?
- What do they do? – Knowing what your audience does for a living and what they’re interested in is a great way to more precisely target your marketing, especially when engaged in digital marketing.
- Why are they donating? – Do you know the reason why they care about your mission? If you do, it’s easier to pair their needs with what you can give them.
- When are they donating? – Find out when your target audience typically makes this type of donation. That way, you can increase your chances of getting their attention they want to give it to you.
- How are they donating? – Are they donating via a website? Do they prefer a phone call or a paper mail?
- What’s their donation budget? – Make sure you’re targeting customers whose budgets appropriately align with your needs.
- What makes them feel good? – Knowing what gives a volunteer or donor that precious good-feeling glow is key to making sure they become repeat and loyal volunteers or donors.
- What do they expect? – Understanding expectations is critical in order to meet those expectations.
- How do they feel about your nonprofit? – Do your volunteers and donors recognize your brand name and your overall brand identity? Hearing praise about your nonprofit is nice – it suggests you’ve built a strong brand image. Hearing where the pain points are is even better.
- How do they feel about your competition? – You know what they say. Keep your friends close – keep your competition closer.
Here are specific questions you can ask your volunteers and donors.
How likely would you be to recommend our nonprofit to others?
If you want a deep insight into a person’s opinion of your nonprofit and brand image, this is the question you need to ask.
The best way to gauge how satisfied a person is with your nonprofit is by learning whether they’d be comfortable telling their mom/brother/best friend/barista to take a look and consider volunteering or supporting your cause.
If you could change just one thing about our nonprofit, what would it be?
Every organization, whether nonprofit or for-profit, has room to improve.
You probably have your own roadmap for where you want your nonprofit to go, and that’s great.
But it’s a good idea to involve your volunteers and donors in this process, too. They are an invaluable source of ideas and feedback, and often see approaches that you hadn’t imagined.
What other options did you consider before you chose us?
After completing market research and investigation, you may think you know who your competitors are.
But there’s always the possibility you’ve either missed one or passed on one because their offering didn’t seem comparable to yours.
Asking your volunteers and funders what nonprofits they evaluated is a great way to make those unknowns known.
What makes us stand out from the competition?
Asking this question gives your volunteers and donors an opportunity to tell you what they think makes you special.
This is more than asking a question about brand identity design and your visual design. This goes to the unique reasons a person might prefer your nonprofit to other nonprofits.
Anything else you’d like us to know?
It’s always good to leave the floor open to unexpected responses or feedback. You can’t ask every single question, nor can you know in advance what might be top of mind for your volunteers and donors.
Asking this question gives your volunteers and donors the chance to mention anything they feel is important. It also gives you insight into what’s important to them.
And, it gives your volunteers and donors the last word and makes it clear that you’re not just interested in your own questions.
Ways to gather responses from volunteers and donors
There are many different ways to gather answers to these questions.
Which one you choose depends on your goals, who your volunteers and donors are, and how you can reach them, but here are some ideas to consider.
- Feedback surveys. Surveys are tried and tested, but they can be challenging to run in ways that won’t annoy people. Companies like SurveyMonkey or TypeForm make running surveys easy. Make sure you keep surveys as short and easy to respond to as possible. Every question on a survey will reduce the number of people who respond to the survey.
- Email and feedback forms. Having a form on your nonprofit website gives people a recognizable way to get their feedback. These tend to work best as either wide open (“How can we improve?”) or more targeted with one or two brief questions.
- Direct contact. Forms and surveys may be easy to use, but they are poor at gathering the greater context or circumstances that your volunteers and donors find themselves in. One of the best ways to get useful feedback is to reach out directly to people and talk to them. Bonus points if it’s in person, but if that’s impossible for you, even a phone call or a video chat can be a great way to form that connection.
- Social media. Asking people that follow your nonprofit on sites like Facebook or Twitter is a great way to quickly gather candid feedback. Many social media sites offer integrated polling as well.
No matter what method you use, make sure that you’re engaging with your audience in a conversation. As we mentioned earlier, let your volunteers and donors know that you’re talking with them, not just at them.
Once you’ve surveyed your volunteers and donors, create user personas.
What is a user persona?
User personas, also called marketing personas or buyer personas, are made-up identities that provide a detailed description of your target audience. A well thought out, completely formed user persona should include plenty of personal information. It should include details like demographic information, career history, even hobbies.
Personas are not just useful in for-profit marketing. Personas can help your nonprofit figure out:
- Who your volunteers and donors are,
- What their goals and frustrations are,
- Where they spend their time,
- When they’re the most active or available,
- Why they make certain decisions, and
- How they interact with your nonprofit.
Persona-based marketing can help make sure you target the messaging perfectly for each unique group of volunteers and donors.
Start with 3 to 5 user personas.
How to define user personas
Start with interviews.
Interviews will help you identify your volunteers’ and donors’ wants, needs, and motivations. They’ll also help you to understand whether volunteers and donors connect with your brand identity and your brand.
Be sure you interview a broad group of volunteers and donors.
- Existing Volunteers and donors – Be sure to make contact with people that have had both positive and negative experiences with your nonprofit. Speaking with people who have only glowing reviews is great, but does not paint the entire picture. You’ll want to understand the experience from all sides if you want to create a useful set of user personas.
- Prospects – It’s important to talk to people who have no experience with your nonprofit. You’re going to want someone without any “baggage” to give a fresh take on things, and a future prospect can provide exactly that kind of unbiased perspective. Your current prospects and leads are a super resource for creating an unbiased user persona – you already have contact information, so making use of that information is easy, cost-effective, and all-around a smart idea.
- Referrals – Ask anyone you know who may have useful points of contact for you – your co-workers, friendly customers, your social media network – they may be able to connect you with perfect interview candidates.
Start with at least 3 to 5 interviews for each persona you’re creating (volunteers, donors, prospects, people who don’t know your nonprofit).
What information do you need to create personas?
After you’ve spoken with volunteers and donors and crunched the numbers, you must turn the data into actual personas.
The people personas represent may be made-up, but you still need to assign each one enough information to flesh them out.
The documentation you create for your personas should be detailed. Anyone in your organization should be able to read it and get a good idea of who these people are.
Every persona should have at least the following information:
- First name – You can provide the last name, but usually a first name is sufficient.
- Age – Age can affect many things, so choose wisely and qualify your decision with actual data.
- Photo – How a persona looks can influence decisions (e.g. if they’re physically attractive or not). Some useful resources: Random User, UIFaces, or User Personas.
- Job – Does this person work? Go to school? Or are they a stay-at-home parent?
- Location – Where does this person live?
- Goals – What are this person’s goals? What do they need or want? How do their goals relate to your company or products?
- Frustrations – What kind of problems does this person have? How do those problems affect their goals and needs?
- Biography – Write a short bio that describes this person’s background and how your products or services can help this person. Don’t forget to base this on actual data – don’t create an idealized background.
Some specific data points that can help you figure where this person fits in your strategy include:
- Keywords – Words that summarize key traits about this person. E.g. “friendly”; “curious”; “technophile”; “late adopter.”
- Character – Using a character helps contrast this person with your other personas. For example, if you were dividing your personas based on a technical ability you could have characters like “The Nerd”, “The Skeptic”, “The Newbie”, etc.
- Myers-Briggs Type – The Myers-Briggs personality indicator is a well-known way to represent something as complex as a person’s personality.
- Favorite brands – What brands does this person like or interact with frequently? What nonprofits do they regularly support?
- Quote – Use actual quotes from people you’ve interviewed to give a quick insight into this person, their needs, fears, and goals.
- Preferred channels – How does this person get their information and what’s the best way to reach them with marketing messaging? By leveraging digital marketing? By leveraging social media? Or through traditional print advertising in newspapers or magazines?
If you need a starting point, there are a number of good persona templates and creation resources available online, many of which are free.
HubSpot has the appropriately named “Make My Persona”, which uses a customized TypeForm questionnaire to help you fill in the blanks for a basic persona. They also have a persona template that may be useful.
How to leverage user personas
Once you’ve done all of the hard work of creating personas based on real data and real customer behavior and needs, it’s time to put them to work.
A critical part of using personas effectively is empathy. You need to put yourself in the mind (or shoes) of your personas so you can weigh decisions and strategies against their needs.
A simple but effective way to do this is to ask yourself, “would [persona name] do [action]?”
For example, if one of your personas is named Amy, you’re trying to determine if a certain marketing strategy makes sense with the group of donors Amy represents.
Asking “Would Amy find this message compelling and donate $50?” is a good way to vet and confirm your ideas.
Does Amy spend time on social media and if so, would she interact with your brand there?
Think of your personas like characters in a story. Would they identify with and like your brand image?
Consider the problem or message you’re trying to confirm as a narrative that your personas are a part of. Use them to help you define goals, challenges, pain points, and behavior.
Personas are a powerful tool to help rally the various parts of your nonprofit around a cohesive whole.
Things to avoid when creating and using personas
Personas are useful, but they are not a substitute for talking to your actual volunteers and donors.
Your volunteers and donors are more than a set of facts, and the things that motivate them and cause them grief can’t always be gleaned from distilling a section of volunteers and donors down to a single “person” for each group.
Understanding your competition
There are three components to a good competitive analysis:
- defining the metrics and identifying the competitors you’re comparing,
- gathering the data and,
- the analysis.
How do you begin? What are the relevant factors that you should be comparing? And what conclusions can/should you draw from the data?
Start by defining what metrics are important
Before you start looking at data, you must understand what metrics are important.
Are you interested in comparing fundraising? Volunteers? Total visits to a website? Traffic rank?
Pick a set of metrics that are important to you and measure the data based on those metrics.
If you pick the wrong metrics, you can still make a competitive analysis – but it will not be particularly meaningful to you.
Don’t worry if you’re not sure whether you’ve defined all of the relevant metrics. As you start looking at the data, you’ll see other good comparisons.
Look at recent trends
Recent trends are important because they paint a picture of what’s happening now.
This is particularly important if your nonprofit is brand new – since you won’t have any historical data for comparison.
Evaluate historical trends
Historical trends help you to understand not only the speed of growth but also to see if the same events impacted your competitors and your nonprofit equally.
Don’t settle for basic information.
Look at all available information to confirm or disprove your conclusions.
Try using any or all of the following:
- SpyFu: This is a great way to discover keywords and Adwords other nonprofits might be using when fundraising.
- Google Trends: Want to stay on top of the latest trends? Need to know where customers go after they leave your site? Try Google Trends.
- Google Alerts: Set up alerts so you know what volunteers, donors, and the general public are saying about your competition. Set one up for yourself and get easy access to the water cooler gossip on your nonprofit.
Important Branding Elements
Before you can create your design assets, you need to understand the building blocks (brand elements) that create your brand identity.
Brand identity design involves a combination of research, understanding, and important branding elements.
These brand identity building blocks include typography, color palette, forms and shapes, and composition.
How do you choose appropriate branding elements?
Here are six things you should consider as part of your branding process when choosing the brand elements for your nonprofit organization to create a brand identity:
- Memorability – The brand identity elements you choose should be memorable and attract attention in order to help people remember and recognize them.
- Meaningfulness – It’s important that the elements you choose meaningfully communicate your brand identity. Brand identity elements should give people information about your brand, service, or product that furthers their positioning and image.
- Likability – Do people find the brand identity element appealing? Is it likable, pleasing, and fun? You want elements that leave a positive impression.
- Transferability – Does the element work across all market segments and mediums (business cards, social media, website, etc.)? Does it translate well across geographic boundaries and languages? Avoid brand identity elements that are constrained to a specific medium (like mobile, or print) or don’t translate well across your volunteers’ and donors’ languages and cultures.
- Adaptability – Adaptability is all about flexibility and longevity. Choose brand identity elements that can stand the test of time and the fickle nature of trends and tastes. Always be willing to change things up when necessary.
- Protectability – No matter what you choose, if you can’t protect it legally and competitively you’re in trouble before you’ve started. It’s expensive to overhaul your brand identity later – this is the time to get it right. Do your due diligence early and avoid legal and trademark issues further down the road.
Let’s look at each of the brand identity design building blocks in detail.
Typography impacts how people perceive your brand identity, your brand, and your messaging.
A recent study conducted by MIT psychologist Kevin Larson showed subjects two different print layouts: one that was designed with poor typography, and another that was designed with good typography.
Larson found that the document with better font choice took less time to read, and led to increased cognitive focus and a “stronger sense of clarity.”
Different fonts have different personalities
Fonts have a psychological impact on people.
When using fonts for your nonprofit, choose a font with the right “personality.” As we wrote,
Typography is an effective way to convey more than just the words involved in written communication. It showcases personality by visually representing the tenor and tone of what it is you’re talking about. You may find that your purpose is best met by using a font with a vibrant personality throughout your website or using an amalgamation of sans and serif typefaces.
Different styles of fonts are used for different purposes depending on the tone and aesthetic you’re trying to create.
They were designed to make it easier for people to read words and that makes most Serif and Sans Serif fonts a good fit for many different kinds of organizations.
There are also fonts that are meant to be a little quirkier and make a bolder statement – those are more suitable for niche nonprofits with a very targeted audience.
So how do you know which font style will work best for your brand identity and for your nonprofit organization?
Are you better off with something conventional, like Arial or Helvetica?
Maybe you’ll find a stronger fit with an offbeat choice like Kirsten or Papyrus?
Whatever your font choice, it should align with your volunteers’ and donors’ expectations when they encounter your nonprofit brand.
The Software Usability Research Laboratory (SURL) at Wichita State University ran a study that examined the traits people associate with varying fonts.
Traditional fonts including Arial or Times New Roman were categorized as “stable” and “mature”, but were also considered “unimaginative” and “conformist.”
In contrast, “youthful” and “casual” fonts like Comic Sans were also considered “happy” and “casual.”
Make sure you consider these feelings and perceptions when you select a font for your nonprofit to better attract your target consumer. But please – never use Comic Sans.
And, be sure to properly license any font you use.
Make sure the visual tone makes sense
Fonts can be evocative, and provoke a wide range of responses from the people viewing them.
The emotion generated from font choice is directly tied into the shape of the letters and our psychological response to those shapes.
Choosing a font that has associations with something counter to what your brand represents will create a confusing experience for people.
You want to pick a font that emphasizes and supports peoples’ underlying feelings about your nonprofit – and avoid one that will throw everything off.
Fonts for a nonprofit logo, for example, should work to be traditional and clean. You need to be sure anything with your font on it – letters, emails, business cards – reinforces the message that you’re a trustworthy, credible organization.
The four major categories of fonts
There are four major categories of fonts:
- Serif – Letters that have short lines coming off the edges. Serif fonts are considered formal and traditional and are well suited for print design.
- Sans-serif – These letters are created without serifs. They are viewed as casual and playful. They work well in digital designs.
- Handwritten – Anything that mimics handwriting is considered a handwritten font. Cursive fonts, for example, are often used in formal invitations.
- Decorative – These are informal fonts that are entirely original. These fonts are interpreted as quirky, creative, and fun.
It’s important when choosing from one of these categories that your chosen style works with the brand identity you are trying to create for your nonprofit.
If you’re not sure the fonts you are drawn to work for your nonprofit, have your designer create several different styled fonts. Then run a focus group with your favorite choices! (crowdspring gives clients the ability to quickly launch free public or private focus groups in every design project).
That way, you can get some outside opinions from friends, colleagues, your mom – anyone whose opinion you value – to let you know how they feel about each one.
It’s a great way to make sure any design you choose hits the sweet spot for your customers!
Color is often used to persuade or influence us. And, naturally, color plays an important role in a nonprofit’s brand identity.
An important study showed that people make a subconscious judgment about a person, environment, or thing within 90 seconds. That judgment was influenced, in 62%-90% of examples, by color alone.
How you use color in your organization and in your brand identity (in your logo, web design, business cards, marketing materials, and more) can have a big effect on your brand.
Let’s take a closer look.
The qualities of color
While our perception of colors and what they mean is subjective, there are some basic qualities that we can apply generally. Here are some of those qualities:
- Red. Often considered exciting, attention-grabbing, warm, and connected to love, anger, life, and comfort.
- Yellow. Seen as adventurous, evoking happiness, enthusiasm, youth, and travel.
- Green. Of course, this color is connected to money, but it’s also known for its connection to balance, health, sustainability, and knowledge.
- Blue. The color of honesty, high quality, competence, trust, reliability, and integrity.
- Pink. This color evokes love, compassion, romance, gentleness, and sophistication.
- Purple. Creativity, royalty, mystery, respect, and playfulness are often connected to purple (and violet).
- Brown. Brown is the color of the outdoors and can be seen as friendly, organic, natural, friendly, and rugged.
- Black. This color is all about sophistication, intelligence, seriousness, and expense.
- White. The antithesis of black is known for its order, innocence, purity, cleanliness, neutrality, and space.
- Grey. When you need to communicate timelessness, neutrality, refinement, of the moment, or practicality, you might want to use grey.
It’s also important to bear in mind that how you mix your colors in a single design also has psychological implications for your audience. For instance:
- A multitude of bright colors appears youthful, childlike, or full of energy.
- Black and white is a classically elegant combination that implies maturity and sophistication.
- Monochromatic schemes allow you to embrace more vibrant colors while maintaining a softer, more unified feel.
- Combining neutrals with an accent color allows you to take advantage of the emotional influence of a strong, bright color without the childlike implications.
Choose your colors wisely to elicit appropriate brand-appropriate emotions. The color choices in your brand identity should always embody the personality of the brand.
Culture and context can also influence how color is interpreted. Therefore, do your due diligence and research your audience so you can make the best choices based on their specific backgrounds.
Picking the right colors for your brand identity
Research shows that anticipating people’s reactions to a color and its relationship to your brand identity and your brand is more important than the actual color itself.
People want to see that a color “fits” your brand.
For example, the color pink probably doesn’t fit with a brand like Ford or Harley Davidson. But, the color pink works great for nonprofits focused on cancer research.
The key takeaway here is that it’s less important what color you choose, and more important that you choose colors that highlight or accentuate the personality you want your brand identity, brand, and product to reflect.
Forms and shapes
All logos – whether they include an icon and text, only an icon, or even just text – have a shape.
And, it’s important to consider what that shape communicates about your brand.
Shapes fall into 3 major categories – geometric, abstract/symbolic, and organic. And, they all come prepackaged with their own psychological associations.
Geometric shapes of all kinds look man-made. Mathematically precise squares, perfect circles, and isosceles triangles don’t tend to appear in nature. So, using these shapes communicates a sense of order and power.
Squares and rectangles convey stability, reliability, strength, order, and predictability. Think of the bricks that are used to build sturdy, stable buildings. If you want your logo to communicate strength and reliability, considering incorporating squares or rectangles.
Circles are never-ending. So, they may be the right choice for your logo if you want to make your audience think of harmony, unity, eternity, or timelessness. Curves are considered to be feminine; and, as such, circles communicate softness, gentility, and femininity.
Triangles are a directional shape. As a result, they change meaning depending on how they are positioned. When right side up, triangles convey power, stability, and upward momentum. Inverted triangles suggest instability or downward momentum. And, triangles pointing to the side convey movement and direction based on where the triangle’s point is facing.
Abstract or symbolic shapes
Symbols are simplified shapes that represent something specific in a culture. And, because symbols have clear, common meanings, they are relied upon heavily as a visual language.
People have seen these images again and again, so it’s really important to be clever and original in how you use them. It’s easy for logos featuring symbols to appear trite and unoriginal.
Here are a few common examples of symbols:
Stars can convey patriotism, religion, or even show business and Hollywood depending on how they are used.
Hearts can be used to communicate love, relationships, and marriage; while broken hearts represent break-ups, divorce, and sadness.
Arrows suggest a direction, movement, and travel. These are commonly used in businesses that ship and deliver goods (FedEx and Amazon, anyone?)
Be very careful when using these, and other, common symbols in your nonprofit logo. They may be an easy-to-understand visual shorthand, but they are also so commonly used that you run the risk of looking indistinct from your competition.
If your logo is too “on-the-nose” and unoriginal you may come across as unprofessional; which will undermine peoples’ faith and trust in your nonprofit.
Irregular, organic shapes are wide open to your creativity.
Organic shapes include the shapes of actual organic items occurring in nature (rocks, leaves, tree bark, amoeba, water ripples, etc.). This category also encompasses any irregular non-symbolic shape, even if it’s not inspired by nature.
Professor Sunday Moulton, Ph.D. explains:
Organic shapes are defined by not being regulated by patterns or exact dimensions in their angles, curves, or lengths of lines. In fact, they are just like shapes we find in nature with all the randomness and freedom you might see in a rock formation, a tree branch, or a leaf chewed by an insect.
When utilizing organic shapes in elements of your brand identity, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Natural shapes like leaves, grasses, representations of water, and trees tend to have a soothing effect on the viewer.
- Shapes with jagged angles may create feelings of anxiety for your viewers, while shapes with soft curves will make them feel more relaxed.
- Shapes that don’t resemble anything recognizable are open to the viewer’s interpretation. This means that you will need to work harder to communicate a specific message through other design elements and branding choices.
The psychology of lines in logo design
Lines appear everywhere.
Lines divide space. They create definition and form. They communicate direction. Lines tell us where to stand and where to drive.
But, beyond their practical function, they can also communicate a great deal aesthetically.
Let’s look at how lines can have a psychological impact on logo design.
Thin vs thick lines
Thin lines are delicate and may appear fragile. They communicate elegance and femininity. They can also imply frailty, weakness, or flexibility.
Alternately, thick lines suggest strength and rigidity. They appear more traditionally masculine than thin lines. Thick, bold lines are used to draw focus and create emphasis where they appear.
Straight vs curved lines
Straight lines imply order, structure, and predictability. They may also be perceived as rigid or harsh. Straight lines are the best option for underlining text to draw the viewer’s attention, while at the same time allowing the text to be the star.
Curved lines, on the other hand, offer more energy and dynamism. Curved lines are visibly flexible and can communicate agility and reactivity. If you’re looking to convey grace and fluidity, curved lines are a great choice.
The stronger the curve, the higher the energy the line will communicate. Softer curves are more calming to look at.
Horizontal vs vertical vs diagonal lines
The position of your line in space impacts the psychological effect that the line creates.
Horizontal lines run parallel to the horizon. As a result, they contain the least visual energy of all line positions.
Unlike vertical or diagonal lines, they look as though gravity has already acted upon them and there is nowhere for them to fall. This means that horizontal is the most restful and stable line position. They feel comfortable and safe.
Horizontal lines help to emphasize width, can be used to indicate the earth or ground, or to indicate lateral movement.
Vertical lines run perpendicular to the horizon. They appear to rise straight up from the earth, filling them with the potential visual energy to tip or fall.
Vertical lines draw the eye upward. And, as such, are often used in religious iconography to draw focus upward to the heavens.
Thicker vertical lines are perceived to have more stability (and be more calming) than thin vertical lines which look more fragile and unstable.
Verticality also can be used to convey dignity or upstanding trustworthiness.
Diagonal lines can be positioned anywhere between horizontal and vertical. This makes them very expressive and the least stable of all the line positions.
The higher the top of the line, the more distance the line can fall. This translates to more potential visual energy. You will elicit more tension in your viewer the higher the angle you create from the horizon.
Diagonal lines suggest movement and action. They are more casual and playful than vertical or horizontal lines because they resist being pigeonholed in either resting position.
Smooth vs jagged vs irregular lines
Smooth lines are clean, calming, and restful. Depending on their context, they can convey confidence, fluidity, or ease.
Jagged and zig-zagging lines are filled with tension. These dynamic lines change direction quickly, communicate erratic movement, and irregularity. They can suggest excitement or anxiety, confusion, or danger.
Irregular lines that are neither completely smooth nor jagged look hand-drawn and natural. They appear casual and can create emphasis and focus by placing an additional weight in the places where you want to draw focus.
Irregular lines can convey playfulness, confidence, timidity, or hesitation based on how they are drawn.
Lines are incredibly expressive tools with great potential for embodying emotion. You can combine most of the factors described above to create lines with great individuality.
When designing a logo, make sure to choose the style of line that best supports the brand the logo will represent.
Typography, colors, forms, shapes, and lines are the building blocks for a great logo design.
But, don’t forget that how you compose those elements also impacts how the logo is perceived and the message it sends. And these elements also impact your overall brand identity.
Here are some important considerations to think through when composing a logo design and other elements of your brand identity:
- Size denotes importance. The larger an object is the more focus it draws and the more important it seems.
- Western audiences read from left to right. So, things appearing on the left side of the logo will be viewed first and perceived as the most important.
- Loosely spaced items surrounded by negative space look more restful than items that are closely spaced. If you choose to emphasize negative space, be careful not to leave too much or the logo may lack coherence.
- Scattered, or irregular placement suggests playfulness, chaos, or rebellion; while orderly, symmetrical arrangements communicate formality, stability, and conformity.
- Layering items together create visual relationships, so be mindful of how you combine shapes and lines.
Symbols are one of the earliest forms of written communication.
From cave walls to hieroglyphics to the printed word as we know it today, symbols are a powerful way to communicate concepts at a glance.
The ability of symbols to convey information, culture, and identity has made them an invaluable part of our shared visual language. This is true not only in popular culture but also when it comes to nonprofits.
We live in a world where people and nonprofits are recognized more for what they represent than who they are. This makes symbols a powerful and effective way of communicating and important elements in brand identity.
Think about this effect when you see a red octagon, or an X on a map. These symbols speak to us on an almost primitive level.
As people interact with a symbol, it becomes filled with meaning.
When you see a person wearing a white coat and stethoscope you probably think that person is a doctor. The white coat and stethoscope are symbols for the medical profession.
When people see a “red cross”, people around the world will quickly think of the Red Cross.
It’s this recognition and how quickly they can communicate an idea or concept that makes them so powerful.
How symbols influence your brand identity and branding
Many nonprofits use logos as symbols for their brand identity.
Symbols are a visual shorthand that nonprofits can use to imbue their brand identity with a deeper meaning.
Symbols create connections between your nonprofit and the ideas you want people to associate with your company.
Careful use of a symbol in your brand identity can have a subtle or powerful effect (or both!).
It all comes down to what you want your brand to stand for and what you want to say.
Symbols are everywhere – you can find them on street signs, food products, sports teams, even on the laundering instructions tag inside your favorite shirt.
Not sure which one to use for your brand identity? We’ve gathered a list of the more common ones (and their possible meanings) here.
Besides love and romance, roses also can represent appreciation, friendship, passion, and much more. Here, the color of the rose is just as important as the flower itself. Roses have experienced a resurgence in popularity; the symbol has emerged at the forefront of many modern designs.
Fire conjures up thoughts of anger, passion, and destruction. It can also signify rebirth (as in the myth of the Phoenix). Fire can also convey a blaze – of energy, speed, and bright, burning passion. Look no further than the iconic Firefox, the Mozilla logo that communicates a brand dedicated to speed and durability.
The “King of the Jungle” carries with it authority, strength, royalty, and steadfastness. The power and force that a lion communicates make it a go-to choice for any organization looking to demonstrate a respectable, strong standing in their marketplace.
The wolf is often used to show independence, freedom, the wild, strength, and guardianship. Logos that use a wolf in their design demonstrate a ferocity, agility, and clever edge that work especially well for sports-related logos.
The triangle is connected to ideas like stability, power, harmony, women’s health, and illumination. A dynamic shape, the triangle conveys focus, balance, and innovation. When shown oriented base-down, stability and strength become clear. However, when shown at an angle, relays an energized, spontaneous feeling instead.
Circles can evoke the concepts of wholeness, completion, infinity, cycles, and also represent the self.
Dragons are especially revered in Asian culture and are often used to represent strength, wisdom, good luck, and potency.
Trees are a common symbol for life and the outdoors. They can also signify fertility, good health, and calm. It’s a popular design symbol for a reason and can be found in many nonprofits seeking to emphasize their nature-oriented mission.
Arrows can mean direction, speed, progress. They can also point out that something is important. They reinforce the idea of movement and are great for conveying expedient service – like FedEx’s iconic negative space logo (notice the white arrow between the E and x).
The sun is a potent symbol of life, power, glory, and energy. The heat and intensity the image of a sun communicate to a viewer creates a lasting impression of warmth, endurance, and limitless power.
The moon represents the rhythm of time, peacefulness, femininity eternity, and enlightenment.
Flags can have many different meanings depending on the context and what color they are. White flags can mean surrender or peace, red can mean warning, attention, or caution, and blue often symbolizes freedom. Using a flag in a design can, therefore, represent a number of meanings – be careful that your color choice doesn’t send a potentially conflicting message about your brand.
Owls are synonymous with wisdom, insight, the night, grace, mystery, and learning. Education and literacy institutions are quick to adopt the owl into their organizations.
Water can represent life, cleaning, creation, and purity. The cleanliness and health water conveys is powerful, and can be used in a variety of forms: water droplets, waves, and rain showers are commonly used in organizations seeking to demonstrate environmental, calming, or cleansing brand values.
Clouds are commonly used by climate/weather focused businesses and nonprofits, but recently, have also become a major symbol of online storage.
Hearts are a straightforward way to demonstrate love, romance, and enthusiasm – the retail industry, in particular, uses hearts in product packaging, package graphics, and product design to great effect (especially on Valentine’s Day). And, nonprofits focused on health, curing diseases, vitality, and emotional welfare also use the symbol to great effect. Hearts are a versatile symbol and are an increasingly popular choice for a wide range of nonprofits.
Tips on using symbols in logos and brand identities
There are some important considerations if you want to incorporate symbols into your brand identity.
As symbols often come loaded with meaning, their use, and how they can be interpreted should be weighed against your branding goals.
Here are some things to keep in mind.
Tell a story
Not all symbols are equal! It’s crucial that you do your research to ensure whatever symbols you choose are clear and concise, and add to the narrative that is your brand.
Don’t choose solely based on visual or aesthetic beauty. Tell a story.
Symbols can mean different things in different cultures and countries. Brand identity in one country may be strong and consistent, but confusing and inconsistent in another country.
For example, the bald eagle may be a symbol of the United States of America to most, but to Native Americans, it is a symbol of nature and a messenger from the Creator.
Colors are another good example of a symbol that can have many meanings.
Doing some due diligence before you choose a symbol is especially important if you run an international nonprofit.
Choosing multiple symbols for your brand identity can have its pitfalls. You don’t want to choose symbols that have conflicting or unexpected ideas.
Symbols can be combined in very powerful ways, but research is again your best protection against unfortunate combinations.
Ultimately you want your brand identity to have a unified message, and whatever symbols you choose should help and not hinder this.
Successful logos have a meaning behind them.
These powerful logos make a lasting impact because they communicate your brand’s message in a compelling, effective way.
A thoughtfully used symbol gives your logo the powerful impact your brand needs to stand ou.
Make sure that you choose a symbol or two that form a strong connection to your brand’s values, mission, and personality. If you aren’t careful and considered in choosing a symbol for your logo, you risk sending confusing, mixed, or even negative messages to your audience. This would weaken your brand identity.
Be intentional with the symbol you choose and that it clearly supports the brand persona you’re presenting.
If you’re looking for ways to connect your brand message on a deeper level with your volunteers and donors, symbols may be just what you’ve been looking for.
Designing Your Brand Identity
It's time to work with a designer to develop the creative elements that will give life to your nonprofit brand identity.
Creative elements are the look, feel, and voice of your brand identity. You’ll communicate them consistently across all channels and it’s extremely important to get them right in your branding process.
The key creative elements of your brand identity include:
A good nonprofit name is an important part of a strong brand identity. A strong name creates a valuable first impression for your volunteers and donors. It’s a shorthand for conveying what is meaningful about your brand, and what makes your brand stand apart from your competition.
Your organization’s name should clearly convey the public brand identity you want your nonprofit to present.
Not sure where to start?
Give some serious thought to what your brand’s primary goals, values, and purposes are.
Since you’ve just defined your brand’s personality, try to come up with brand names that support the most important elements.
When you name a nonprofit, you must be certain your name represents your complete, authentic brand.
A logo is one of the most important elements of brand identity. A well-designed nonprofit logo is a critical component of any well-executed brand experience.
What is a logo?
a logo is a small, symbolic piece of artwork that represents a nonprofit, business, or another type of organization. The logo acts as both the calling card and 'avatar' for your brand and is one of the most important elements of a brand's identity.
But what makes for a well-designed logo that strengthens brand identity?
At its most basic, a logo is a small, symbolic piece of artwork that represents a nonprofit. But, when you set aside all the design trends and fancy fonts, at its core, a logo must:
1- Embody your brand.
2- Be instantly recognizable.
3- Be versatile.
4- Be timeless.
Everything else is optional.
Every design choice in your logo should exist only to serve and strengthen the four items listed above. And, if you meet these four requirements, many other commonly cited logo must-haves, like simplicity and memorability, naturally follow.
As we mentioned above, brand identity includes everything visual about your brand.
Your website is often the first place prospective volunteers and donors visit to learn about your nonprofit.
And while many different things influence people’s decisions to volunteer or donate, there’s a single common factor that drives nearly every decision: can the person trust your nonprofit?
Strong, modern web design is vital to your brand’s reputation, your bottom line, and your future.
First impressions are important. And, in our digital age, we often make our first impressions via email.
For example, a welcome email is the first exchange between your nonprofit and a new volunteer or donor.
It sets the tone for future communications, encourages people to take a closer look at your nonprofit, and provides helpful information.
A style guide (also knows as brand guidelines) is a set of rules to follow any time a member of your organization wants to publish, present, or promote content for your brand, use your brand design assets, or use your brand identity correctly on marketing materials, including on social media.
Brand identity may change and evolve as time and trends pass, but a brand’s personality mostly stays the same. Brand personalities typically include 3-5 key characteristics (like rebellious, empowering, and adventurous, for example).
There are plenty of different possibilities to consider when deciding on a voice for your brand.
Here are some other questions to get you started down the discovery road:
- What are your nonprofit’s main purpose and function?
- How do people benefit from your nonprofit?
- What is the current public perception of your nonprofit?
- What is the most important part of volunteers’ and donors’ experience with your nonprofit?
- What kind of qualities do you want people to associate with your nonprofit?
Your answers to these questions will build the core of your brand. All of your future branding decisions should expand on these ideas.
Creating a Brand Style Guide
You can create more consistency and stronger brand identity by implementing a style guide for your nonprofit.
A style guide (aka “brand guidelines”) is a set of rules to follow any time a member of your organization wants to publish, present, or promote content for your brand.
A style guide answers questions like:
- What brand design assets are available for public use?
- What is the proper way to showcase brand assets?
- What font does your logo use?
- What colors are approved?
- When you need an image for a project, what tone and feel should it have?
- Should writers use “email” or does your organization prefer the hyphenated “e-mail?”
These seem like small details, but if they’re not captured in a style guide your brand identity can quickly drift into an inconsistent experience for your volunteers, donors, and the general public.
It’s not enough to create a brand identity – you must also consistently leverage it to build a strong brand and a powerful brand image.
Consistent, strategic branding allows your nonprofit to grow strong brand equity.
How to create a style guide
Here are the six basic items that should be on your brand identity style guide:
1. Brand overview
What is your brand?
What does it stand for?
What are your goals and vision for your nonprofit?
These are all important things to define early, as they will serve as the guidepost for the overall flavor you want your brand to incorporate.
Your logo is the most essential element in your guide and an important element in brand identity design.
A logo represents the aesthetic of your nonprofit’s brand identity, is the first thing people notice, and the piece that they remember later. A logo should be consistent everywhere it’s used.
General rules for the logo include specifications about the size, placement, how much negative space is around it, and the places your company considers appropriate usage.
3. Color Palette
As we discussed in Brand Identity Design: the Building Blocks of Your Brand Identity, color is a powerful part of your brand identity.
To make sure your brand identity colors aren’t subjected to an over-zealous designer’s pastel or glow effect, your style guide should have a detailed color palette.
The style guide should clearly show what colors are permitted, where certain colors should (and shouldn’t) be used, and what colors should be avoided.
This should include specific color values (RGB, CMYK, and even Pantone) to remove uncertainty when creating collateral for the web, print, and other media.
Your typeface and font are important elements of your brand identity design, as are the rules that you assign to them.
Headers, quotes, copy and any fine print all need the right color choice, sizing, and style, with font choice of critical importance.
Stop that new intern from replacing your carefully chosen typeface with the dreaded Comic Sans MS by detailing all of your brand’s typography in your guide.
Your style guide should include image guidelines: what’s allowed, what’s not, and when a specific image should be used.
You can even include instructions on where images should be sourced from, and if you have a particular aesthetic, what form it takes.
Whatever you’ve decided for your nonprofit should be spelled out in your guide so that your brand identity is consistent and strong.
Style guides aren’t just for visual elements.
The lexicon your nonprofit chooses can help define your brand’s personality and can have a profound effect on how your volunteers, donors, and the general public interacts with you.
While you don’t need a weighty tome, capturing the general sound of your nonprofit’s “voice” can make the difference between an anything-goes approach and something more measured and unique.
Ultimately, style guides are not about crafting hard and fast rules for every little piece of your brand. they’re meant to be guidelines that create consistency and help your nonprofit project a unified presence.
There are a number of tools available to help you create your own style guide, including Frontify and ZippyPixel’s printable brand guidelines template. There is also a seemingly endless inspiration available to help you learn from the work of others.
How To Translate Your Brand Identity Into Nonprofit Marketing
After you develop your brand identity, you'll use it when you broadcast your nonprofit's message to motivate volunteers and donors to help your cause.
Remember that you won’t know if you’re doing things right unless you track key performance metrics and monitor your brand. Use Google Analytics and various survey and social media tools to get a sense of how people talk about your brand and interact with your brand. Doing so will help you tweak your brand identity and to correct mistakes.
To help you translate your brand identity into nonprofit marketing (including digital marketing, social media marketing, and offline marketing), we want to share examples of nonprofits that do a great job telling brand stories through their marketing.
ignite: futures with promise
Teen Living Programs (TLP) was started decades ago to help homeless youths. Originally TLP started as a place that provided temporary housing for youths. But over many decades, the organization became a nationally recognized place for youths to reimagine their futures.
Recently, TLP recognized the needed to rebrand to more accurately reflect the work the organization was doing today. They worked with Prosper Strategies, a nonprofit consulting firm based in Chicago, to update their brand identity and messaging to communicate their growing mission and appeal to a bigger audience of volunteers and funders.
After rebranding, ignite developed a plan to reintroduce the organization to the board, youth, funders, supporters, volunteers, the media, and the general public. This wholistic messaging was unveiled at the organization’s annual gala in 2019 and that evening alone, ignite raised $500,000.
What you can learn from ignite:
- Feature your logo prominently on your website, t-shirts, bags, coffee cups, letterhead, business cards, and elsewhere to increase brand recognition and showcase your brand identity.
- Make thoughtful choices about the graphics that will best communicate your brand story. Dig deep and be selective – use the images that pack the most meaning possible while also jiving with the overall design concept and brand story.
Common Nonprofit Branding Mistakes
Over the past decade, we've observed many nonprofits, even successful nonprofits, make critical branding mistakes.
Here are some most common branding mistakes - hopefully, you can avoid making them while you brand or rebrand your nonprofit.
1. Avoid a generic brand identity
How many nonprofit founders have thought: “I want my brand identity to be very bland and generic so that my nonprofit is indistinguishable from anyone else!”
A strong brand identity is often the key difference between blending in and standing out from the competition.
But while most marketers and nonprofit founders often recognize the value of strong brand identity, many don’t always prioritize it.
New nonprofit founders often incorrectly believe that a good logo will cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars (that’s simply untrue – check out this guide to how much a logo design should cost).
As a result, they sometimes buy pre-made templates in an online logo store, try a do-it-yourself approach, or use so-called online logo makers (some of whom claim to use artificial intelligence, or AI, to create logos).
In fact, nonprofit founders aren’t the only ones who make the mistake of using generic logos- businesses of all sizes sometimes use logo shortcuts, only to find out that it’s even more expensive to rebrand later.
After all, memorable logos are 13% more likely to get people’s attention, and 71.6% more likely to get a positive response from people.
In a world of noise, that can make a big difference.
In certain industries, generic logos have become extremely problematic.
The epidemic of similar fonts, glyphs, and swishy people leaves a weak first impression on customers and is unmemorable.
We’ve talked about the legal and branding dangers of these generic logo symbols in The Logo Store Nightmare: Ready Made Logos Harm Your Business.
2. Not delivering your brand identity consistently
If there’s one word that might encapsulate the habits of successful brands, it is consistency.
Behind any identity, from Coca-Cola’s huge presence to smaller but equally memorable brands like Dollar Shave Club, is a clear and consistent delivery.
The same holds true for nonprofit brands.
The critical part is that this can’t just be online, or in print: it needs to be evenly applied across anywhere your nonprofit interacts with your audience.
It can be challenging to communicate your brand identity when you’re limited to a single large header image, but this is a perfect example of why good branding is more than just visual.
You have to adapt to the constraints of each network and find a way to represent your brand identity faithfully.
3. Neglecting every branding opportunity
Some nonprofits have the basics of good branding down.
But there are still many places you can extend your brand identity.
When you give Powerpoint or Keynote presentations, how do the slides reflect your brand identity?
Many nonprofits neglect to update their presentation templates or don’t create templates at all. You end up with is a hodgepodge of slide designs and presentation designs that can seem inconsistent at best, or unprofessional at worst.
Take the time to create custom presentation templates and make sure they are used consistently and kept up to date as your brand identity evolves.
Another small but meaningful place that nonprofits often neglect extending their brand identity is their employee’s or volunteers’ email signatures. We’re not suggesting you use massive, rich-media email signatures with embedded images and fancy typography (because those are annoying).
Including a short, concise message (such as your mission or tagline), however, is a great way to use a space that would normally be forgotten.
And of course, use your nonprofit’s name as your email address if at all possible. An email address is part of your brand identity too – don’t rely on a generic Gmail or Yahoo email address.
4. Cheating on your branding guidelines or style guide
It’s one thing to make sure the brand you create is uniquely yours, and cannot be misrepresented or misinterpreted by others.
It’s another thing to make sure your branding strategy is consistently applied internally as well.
Whether this happens intentionally (when an internal team takes matters into their own hands and deviates from the brand on purpose) or through carelessness or lax brand policing, the results are similar.
Many nonprofits shoot themselves in the foot if staff members and volunteers do not follow established brand guidelines.
Build brand guidelines or a style guide to ensure that everyone responsible for putting your brand identity out to the public knows how to put your brand in the public sphere.
Keep guidelines as specific as possible, and keep them documented and accessible to all of your staff.
You worked hard to create your brand. Give your staff members and volunteers the tools they need so they don’t inadvertently go off-brand and create internal checks so that you know your brand is applied correctly by all.
This is important in all your communications, even at events where you’ll publicly showcase your brand.
5. Not evolving your brand identity
Just as people’s tastes and trends change over time, so should your brand and brand identity.
A brand is a living document of not only what your nonprofit represents. A brand also acts as a vital connection between your audience and your nonprofit. Listen to what your audience says on social media.
Don’t be afraid to involve them in the discussion. As your volunteers and donors change, so should your brand identity.
6. If you rebrand, do it right
Rebranding can be a great way to refresh your brand by incorporating modern aesthetics into your existing nonprofit’s identity.
It’s important not to let your brand stagnate, and sometimes, a visual overhaul can help inspire loyalty and more volunteers and donations.
However, if you introduce these changes poorly, you risk isolating your potential volunteer and donor base and offending your existing ones. When making changes to established brand identity, you need to be certain any changes made have benefits that significantly outweigh the risks of potentially losing the credibility and identity you’ve spent time building.
Make sure you are conveying your rebranding efforts clearly so that your volunteers, donors, and the general public don’t end up confused or otherwise estranged from the brand they know.
Make sure your audience is informed to prevent your rebranding efforts from causing frustration.
Even major brands make mistakes when rebranding. In the following video, we look at four rebranding failures so that you can gracefully avoid these rebranding pitfalls.
A strong brand identity can mean the difference between your nonprofit succeeding beyond your wildest dreams or failing miserably.
The good news is that whether you succeed or fail is in your hands.
We regularly update this complete nonprofit branding guide. It was last updated on September 24, 2020.
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