In 1990 the most valuable labels were General Motors, Ford, Exxon, and IBM. By 2020, not one of those brands would be among the most valuable. Instead, 30 years later, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft led the list of most powerful brands by distinguishing their goods, services, and people from the competition. They found ways to stand out from the crowd and to win better opportunities. Savvy directors of nonprofits understand that brands influence how people perceive an organization or an individual, both the impressions that can be controlled and the ones that can’t.
When directors think about their roles in building and sustaining a brand, they usually concentrate on the organization’s brand, too often ignoring their personal brands. Organizational brands and personal brands, however, must march in lockstep precision to guarantee growth. When clients connect emotionally—because they share the same values and beliefs as those who made decisions about the brand—it leads to higher sales and better brand differentiation. A resilient brand encourages loyalty, advocacy, and innovation. Since clients often pay more for a brand they recognize, a strong brand can even protect price in times when competitors rely on promotional discounts to drive sales. A strong brand will also serve as the ideal platform from which to expand.
In businesses, names, products, logos, colors, fonts, voices, and reputations contribute to or detract from the brand. Similarly, individuals build personal brands through recognition of their faces, personalities, communication styles, talents, traits, and behaviors. These coalesce to cause others to think about a person in a particular way. When we think about the personal brands of directors, all these factors combine to form reputations that precede them and usually explain why they were asked to join a mission-driven board in the first place.
Here are ways directors can build durable personal and organizational brands:
- Start with the mission. A mission statement should play the same role in an organization and in a person’s life that the Holy Grail did in the Crusades. The mission defines the reason for being, the touchstone against which to evaluate strategy, activities, and expectations for overcoming the competition. Without this, directors will diffuse resources, enable individual units of the organization to operate in silos, create conflicting tactics, and confuse customers, suppliers, financiers, and employees. Conversely, when directors have a well-articulated sense of purpose for themselves and the organization they serve, they build a firm foundation that provides clear guidance for all significant decisions and establishes a point of reference for setting strategy and planning its execution. How clear is the mission statement? Does it inspire people to work to accomplish it? Remember it should answer four and only four questions:
– Why do we exist?
– What is our business?
– Who are our customers?
– What do they value?
These are the same four questions directors should ask themselves about their role on the board. They also help to define the brand. A robust brand promotes the nonprofit, connects it with the donor base, and differentiates the organization from others in the nonprofit space.
- Think of a brand as a person. Each person has unique characteristics, talents, experiences, and perceptions. Would everyone on the board describe the nonprofit’s brand with the same adjectives? If not, no unified message will come from directors, and ultimately customers will get confused. No one likes confusion, so when it exists, risk follows. Each year, as directors discuss and adjust the upcoming year’s strategy, also examine how the organization’s brand has changed or remained the same since last year. Things like a global pandemic are bound to suggest changes to the brand—not necessarily or usually the mission.
- Revisit the driving forces of the nonprofit, which exist by default, even if you have not deliberately chosen them. How do you explain the nonprofit’s success? What we sell? To whom we sell? Our production capability? Our method of distribution? Make sure everyone agrees about the unique contribution of the organization and leverage what works. Resist the temptation to engage in that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-things-around-here thinking. Each year ask the question, “If we weren’t already doing things this way, would we now start?”
- Do business with donors who believe in what the nonprofit does. Build evangelism among your best donors, and they will help you build the brand. Also, develop personal relationships with these best donors and check in with them frequently to find out what they need and expect from the organization. Develop referral relationships with those upon whom the organization relies. For example, board directors at a pediatric bridge hospital would benefit from forming personal relationships with physicians from local hospitals and supporting their fundraising and outreach efforts.
- As a director, figure out your unique contribution. What can you do for this nonprofit that no one else (or not many others) can do? Boards should attract like-minded people with diverse backgrounds and talents. Each will have a way to help build the brand. Additionally, employees and donors should see board members living the mission of the organization. For faith-based organizations, this often means directors do more than attend church services; they become actively involved in their churches, of ten assuming leadership roles. In secular organizations, directors should demonstrate in tangible ways a passion for the mission.
Brand development depends on directors’ playing the long game. Dressing up products, raising expectations, and breaking promises don’t do that. When directors take control of building their personal brands, they position themselves to help build the nonprofit organization’s image in the industry. They understand how to create trust and remain true to their own values and those of the organizations they serve. When directors, management, and employees all speak to the donors with a consistent tone, they work together to establish a coherent, distinctive identity and reinforce the organization’s character. They innovate and make decisions to grow, not by diluting their brand with indiscriminate discounting but by offering more and better products and services.