The board and nonprofit branding

September 18, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Communications,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 10:49 am

A friend serving on the board of a local nonprofit recently asked me:

” I have a question about the process of rebranding for a nonprofit. Is it your experience that the board is involved in the design committee? And/or how about needing to vote on and approve the new brand before it’s rolled out?  Our board board is having a discussion about this so I want some expert insights.”

I think this will vary wildly based on the size of the organization and expertise of the board and staff.

It also depends on what is meant by the umbrella term “branding.”

Some think of it very narrowly (e.g. logo and organizational name).

Others think of it more broadly (e.g. logo/name/color pallette/fonts/style sheets).

I tend to think of it still more broadly as encompassing your desired identity (e.g. what you want your constituents and the public to think of when they hear your organizational name and see your materials). For example, a nonprofit I’ve advised recently did a branding exercise that concluded they wanted people to think of “science”, “legacy”, and “thriving” as the three words they most associate with the nonprofit.

In terms of board approval, I’d expect a board vote on a name change.

But everything else it really depends on the size of the organization’s staff and board, and the relative expertise of board and staff. More times than not, I think this probably means the board doesn’t vote — with some exceptions — in part because the board has so many other clear responsibilities that they struggle to find time to meet and vote on.

In terms of board involvement for developing a proposed new branding, I think it again depends on the circumstances.

If the branding is a broader question about organizational identity (e.g. what the brand is trying to convey and not just questions of how to convey it), then I’d certainly expect the board to be consulted for their input.  Whether that’s via a committee or interviews or online survey or focus group or some other method doesn’t really matter. 

If it’s more about how to convey the brand identity (e.g. what color scheme to use), I would not expect board involvement in that. The exception: really small organizations where (a) the board is in part playing a management role because staff doesn’t have the bandwidth to do all desired staff functions, and (b) one or more board members has relevant expertise.

But this is the important thing: if one or more board members are brought into the process because of their expertise on branding, I’d view them as participating as an expert volunteer, not in their board capacity.  When board members volunteer for something other than a board governance responsibility, they’re just another volunteer for that activity.

Has your organization been through branding? What role did your board play in these decisions? Please let me know in the comments!

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Your organization is an intermediary

June 24, 2015

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 1:11 pm

One of the more interesting words I recently heard used to describe nonprofits is as “intermediaries.”

Under this way of thinking, your organization isn’t the protagonist in your story.

Instead, those who support your organization are the protagonists. The donors, whether individual or institutional.

Their passion is what matters.

Passion for what? Not for your organization, although they may well also have that.

Instead, it’s their passion for the community impact or change that you’re making.

You are the intermediary that helps the donor make the impact that they want, where the donor can’t do the work directly.

If you start thinking this way, you’ll avoid the trap of your fundraising materials being all about how great the organization is. Your case should instead be about the tremendous impact the donors are making for the community and how satisfying it is to play a key role in making that change happen.

You are the intermediary.

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Guest blog: How to become a thought leader

February 17, 2015

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 9:30 am

Guest blog by Liz Banse of Resource Media. 

Thought Leadership: More than just a TED talk and, yes, more than just a fad

Have you ever dreamed of giving a TED talk and selling your big idea to the same folks who gobbled up Bill Gates big vision of innovating to zero, learned that gaming can be good, or how schools kill creativity?

What you were dreaming about was becoming a world-famous thought leader. If there was a word or phrase of the year in the communications industry for 2014, it would be “thought leadership.” Finally, a new phrase has pushed “storytelling” to the side as the “it” thing.

At Resource Media, we have heard a lot of you articulate your dreams of getting your bold vision out to a wider circle. There’s nothing we love more than working with visionaries – who wouldn’t?!

But, with all the ideas and excitement about thought leadership, what is it really?

First of all, it’s disruptive. Take any current notion of how things can or should be done and offer a completely different approach to solving whatever problem you have identified, and you are well on your way to becoming your industry’s thought leader.

Thought leaders tend to upend the status quo with a bold vision.

Thought leadership is not about being the most knowledgeable person on your issue.

If you’ve checked this box, great. But, before you go out and make your mark on the world, make sure that your organization’s brand is strong, too.

As the leader of an organization, your thought leadership should come around to benefit your organization. And, vice versa. If you know your organization’s brand is strong, it can help catapult you to the forefront. If it is weak, work on that first, before you work on your thought leadership plan.

Check. Now, you are ready to go forth and conquer the world. Package your thought leadership with an interesting life story (trust us, everyone has one). People have thought leadership, not organizations.

Create a video or some other vehicle that will carry your idea to others when you are not able to do it in-person. Attend events and conferences with audiences who can help you test out your idea and hone it even further. Actively pursue media interviews with journalists who can help spread your ideas among other influencers. Play an active role on social media, engaging in conversations with other leaders.

Watch your influence meter rise.

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Guest Blog: How to Refresh your Brand

February 10, 2015

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 9:19 am

Guest Blog by Liz Banse of Resource Media

When was the last time you went to the doctor for a check-up? Hopefully, it was in the past year. But, what about your organization? Have you given it a check-up recently? Specifically, have you checked on the health of your organization’s brand?

Aw, we’re fine, you say. I know how to articulate my organization’s mission statement without even referring to the cheat sheet by my phone. But, do you know what other people are saying about you? And does that match how you describe who you are, what you do, and what makes you so unique?

At Resource Media, we like to say that your brand is what people say about you once you leave the room. If there is any sort of gap between how you describe yourself and how others describe you when you aren’t around, you have a brand disconnect. And a brand disconnect means you are not fulfilling your brand promise to your supporters.

That’s when you want to get back into alignment. A branding refresh is all about redefining and getting clear on what sets you apart from others in your field. It’s about finding the right words to communicate the value of the work that you do to the people who need to hear it most – whether they be donors, elected officials or community leaders, other organizational partners or anyone else you need on your side to realize your goals.

How does a typical branding process flow? Start with a discovery process where you interview people within the organization as well as those who interface with it from the outside (supporters, funders, policy makers, partner organizations, and others). Ideally, these interviews are conducted by a neutral third party with communications expertise so that you’re receiving candid views instead of people telling you what you want to hear. These in-depth interviews will give you the first clues as to the health of the brand.

Next, have someone outside of your organization review your organization’s materials – online and offline and write up what they perceive as your brand. Does their write up match what you had intended to convey?

You may also at this point want to do a broader online survey of organizational supporters.

Pull all the research generated together and hold a “workshop” at which you hopefully will generate some “a-ha” moments. The outcome of the workshop should be refreshed language about your organization’s core identity and some tactics for how to better communicate it.

Then, don’t forget to make sure everyone on staff (and possibly the board) is trained and any stock materials are overhauled. The result: Staff, volunteers, and those outside the organization will speak in one voice on how and what you do and, most importantly, why the work you do is important and unique.

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The Science behind Storyelling

November 24, 2014

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 3:51 pm

Here’s a really quick, but useful read about the science that explains why fundraising via storytelling is more effective than relying on statistics to mak your case.

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling.



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Should your nonprofit get a drone?

June 18, 2014

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 3:43 pm

Should your nonprofit get a drone?Drone tabling

Okay — never expected to ask that question.  And I’m only half serious.

But at the River Rally I attended a few weeks back, a vendor (Intelligent Unmanned Aerial Solutions) was tabling and the price of drones with cameras was shockingly inexpensive. They were pitching to river groups for taking aerial surveillance of polluters.

Are there other reasons a nonprofit may benefit from having a drone?

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Guest blog: 5 Questions to Ask When Using Marketing to Grow Your Non-Profit

March 31, 2014

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 11:18 am

Guest Blog by Natalie Henry Bennon  —

Marketing gets a bad rap. And sometimes it’s deserved. I don’t like being told I need a new thing when really I don’t.

And yet, marketing is key to successful for-profit businesses. Non-profits have finally taken notice. Some are hiring marketing staff. Some have shifted budgets from media relations to marketing and social media. Others are hiring marketing firms under contract.

Whatever your non-profit growth challenge, here are five questions to ask in determining how marketing can help your non-profit grow:

1)    What are your measurable goals?

This could be: We want to attract 1,000 new members in 2014. Your marketing goals could also be recruiting new volunteers or board members; retaining members, volunteers, or board members; or raising awareness and attention to your issue.

2)    Who is your target audience?

Let’s assume you are trying to recruit more members, and you know you want younger and more diverse members. Your target audience might be women and men between the ages of 20 and 35 making $30,000 to $55,000 per year. It may help to give this person a real name and picture and persona. Think about what s/he does for a living and for fun.

For example, let’s say you are creating a marketing plan for The Sierra Club. They want to recruit more members. This might be a useful target audience persona:

Meet Chris. He is 28, works at a company that manufactures solar panels, buys mostly organic food, and has in the past volunteered at his local beach cleanup. He likes to ski, hike and cook.

3)    What is your value proposition?

For this, it’s helpful to actually define the difference between marketing, branding, advertising and sales. For non-profits, Arizona State University’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy defines “marketing” as a process that brings about the voluntary exchange of values (as opposed to goods) between a non-profit organization and its target market. For example, it could be a transfer of a donation in exchange for addressing a social need.

What value is your audience getting? A value proposition helps you articulate this.  It names your target audience, what you want them to do, what benefits they will receive, and why.

Keeping with the Sierra Club example, here is a specific example: When you donate to the Sierra Club, you get peace of mind that your money is going toward proven, effective environmental advocacy that will help provide clean air and water, improve human health, and protect wildlife and wild places.

4)    What is your position in the marketplace?

Now it’s time to consider your competition. Non-profits don’t always like to call it competition, because we don’t actually want other groups doing important work to fail. But you are competing for members and volunteers. So what is your position in the marketplace? How are you different than other non-profits? A positioning map can help with this.

For example, the Sierra Club engages in advocacy, lobbying, and litigation. The club works nationally, but also has local chapters, and even some international programs. Compared to other international environmental non-profits, it positions itself as more reasonable than Greenpeace, which is very confrontational, but more aggressive than The Nature Conservancy, which is less confrontational in its tactics.

A non-profit’s position in the marketplace will help establish trust from different audiences. Moreover, a non-profit’s positioning, combined with it’s value proposition and its target audience, help non-profit managers make a cascade of other strategic decisions including messaging, partnerships and how to get the message to the audience.

5)    How will you reach your audience?

Where do they spend time? What do they like to do?

If you are aiming for the 20-35 year olds in my example, I think the things they are doing are trying to build a career, and find a mate. So perhaps the Sierra Club would offer professional networking events, or young and social volunteering and hiking events. The club might also create a community online where young people engage with Sierra Club actions. The club could also become a news and action resource for all the things this age group cares about regarding the environment (this is a kind of content marketing).

My number one advice: don’t just answer these questions in your head. If your non-profit has plans to grow, try drafting a marketing plan that identifies at least one quantifiable growth goal.

Start today.  What is one goal for your non-profit’s growth? Leave a comment below.

Natalie Henry Bennon’s consulting firm Springtale Strategies specializes in non-profit marketing, media relations, and grant writing. You can email her at

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One big idea and three takeaways

January 27, 2014

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 11:06 am

I recently was given good advice worth sharing.

In any event you are putting on, you should be able to identify the single, one-sentence big idea that will get people interested and three — and no more than three — takeaway messages.

If you systematically identify the big idea and three takeaway messages up-front and design your communications around them, you will have more success.

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Tips for fundraising letters

July 31, 2013

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 2:15 pm

Clients regularly ask me what goes into a good fundraising letter sent to previous donors.

Here are some tips, in no particular order:

  • Spend time thinking about the opening sentence or two.  It should be engaging, interesting, and provocative.  Don’t save your most engaging material for a third of the way into the letter.  Open with your strongest stuff.
  • Make the ask.  At least once per page in a multi-page letter.  Letters that provide an update and then just softly suggest donations are almost never effective.
  • Make the ask specific.  Don’t ask for “generous support” or other similar wishy-washy terms.   If you can, segment your list to make the ask at an appropriate level for different levels of past giving.  If not, you can ask for a several specific levels (e.g. “give $35, $50, $100, or whatever you can afford.”).
  • Personalize it.  Don’t send it to “Dear Friend.”  Send it to “Dear Susan.”
  • Thank them.  If the thank you can be personalized, all the better.  For example, some organizations as part of a mail merge can personalize based on how much they last donated (e.g. “Thank you for your most recent gift of $50” – with $50 being a field inserted from the mail merge unique to that donor).
  • Write it from a person, not the organization.  It should be first-person singular from the author, not “we” from the organization.
  • Create urgency by noting some monetary need of your organization with a deadline.  Create an artificial deadline if necessary.  Make it clear donations in the next few weeks are critical.
  • Tell a story with visually arresting language.  But the story shouldn’t be over – the ending should depend on donors stepping forward to complete the story.   The donors should be the hero(s) of the story, not the nonprofit.
  • Focus on the mission-impact you’ll be making on the world with more resources, not the process or internal organizational benefits.
  • Close with a strong repeat of the ask.
  • If the author has time to actually sign each individual letter instead of printing one, then it’s worth doing so.  I found this to be a painless activity to do while watching a movie or tv show at home and am pretty sure donors appreciated when they could tell an individual signed it, not just the computer.  This also gave me a chance o write 1-2 sentence personal notes on any letters where I knew the person receiving it.
  • Use a PS that once again repeats the specific ask and the urgency/deadline.
  • If the volunteers are available, experiment with having half your letters hand addressed by volunteers and sent first class.  See if the extra dollars generated by higher returns justifies the extra postage and volunteer time.   If so, make this part of your standard practice.

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Making them move

July 25, 2013

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 2:37 pm

Lesson 7 of Why Organizations Thrive is to become a very good public speaker.

Here’s one public speaking tip that I’ve found useful over the years: make the audience physically move.

Rather than being a distraction, this almost always will increase their mental and emotional connection to the speech.

When giving my annual presentations at the Oregon League of Conservation Voters Gala, more than once I determined that movement was going to be a powerful way of increasing the audience’s excitement about the dinner that was unfolding.  I felt that the motion of their standing up en mass with others would help generate excitement and make them feel “part” of the speech and not just listeners.

So I asked a series of questions (another way to increase audience engagement) that I knew would over the course of 30 seconds get the entire audience standing up and feeling good about their collective power.

The two times I used this trick (several years apart), the sense of increased excitement in the room was palpable.

Of course, if you’re giving an annual presentation, you can’t use this “trick” every year or it will start to feel stale.

But in putting together your presentations, think about what you’re trying to accomplish and whether some movement can increase the audience’s engagement.  In addition to standing up, movement could mean raising their hands, having them introduce themselves to the person next to them, having them stand up and turn once around and sit back down, etc.

If you’ve used this technique or seen it used with real success, let me know what worked as I’m always trying to add to my own toolbox.


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