The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy and Affinity

Nathalie Laidler-Kylander & Julia Shepard Stenzel

240 pages, Jossey-Bass, 2013

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The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity is a new book that can help nonprofits more effectively manage their brands to further their missions. Drawing on interviews with over 70 organizations, the book explores how nonprofit organizations are developing and implementing new ways of building and managing their organizational brands. The Brand IDEA framework outlines the concepts of Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity: aligning the brand with the organization’s mission and values, engaging internal and external stakeholders in defining and communicating the brand, and leveraging the brand to support partnerships and collaboration. Examples include: how Special Olympics transitioned from a state of brand confusion to a clear brand identity that has increased cohesion and consistency, how Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts transformed patrons into brand ambassadors, and how the Girl Effect freely offered its brand assets to partners to dramatically increase both reach and impact. Find out more at

A Paradigm Shift and Brand Management Mindset

Our research and discussions uncovered an essential paradigm shift that is starting to occur in the nonprofit sector. This shift involves a change in the perception of the role of the brand, away from a fundraising and PR tool to a critical strategic asset focused on mission implementation. Instead of thinking of the brand as a logo and tagline, the new paradigm understands brand as the embodiment of the organization’s mission and values. This expanded definition of brand was described by many of our interviewees. Joan Barlow, creative services manager at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, recognized that “brand is more than colors, design, and a logo.” She described the new understanding of brand as “the pride we feel in our work, our culture of commitment and passion, and our values.”

Rather than focusing on fundraising as the objective of the brand, the new paradigm places brand in service of the mission and social impact. Instead of having responsibility for the brand reside within the marketing, communications, or development department, responsibility for the brand as a key strategic asset resides with the entire executive team and the board, although as we will argue later, brand management is everyone’s job.

In the new brand paradigm, brand has less to do with gaining a competitive advantage and more to do with clarifying positioning, which can help in determining the collaborations and partnerships that enable an organization to implement its mission and maximize its impact. Brand communications have less to do with the one-way projecting of a controlled image and more to do with establishing a dialogue and a process of participative and authentic engagement, in both the development and the communication of the brand. The brand audience used to be thought of as the donors (both individual and institutional), but in the new paradigm, the brand must address a whole spectrum of both internal and external audiences that are ready and willing to support the organization in different ways as brand ambassadors. We find this shift very exciting and believe that it can truly catalyze nonprofit organizations to implement their missions more effectively and efficiently.

Some people tell us, “We are a small organization with limited resources, and we don’t have the time or money to do branding.” Others say, “I think it would be a good idea for us to manage our brand more effectively, but I wouldn’t even know where to start.” Our response to both of these concerns is that brand management does not necessarily require a significant financial investment or specific expertise. What it does require is a willingness to adopt a new brand management mindset and allocate the time, effort, and energy to widely discussing brand internally. As Ingrid Srinath, executive director of Childline India, said, “You have a brand whether you like it or not. Really the only choice you have is how actively you want to shape and manage that brand.” Embracing this new nonprofit brand paradigm is the first step for organizations that want to actively shape and manage their brands.

We believe that organizations need to leverage the opportunities that are emerging with the rise in social media and the increased emphasis on partnerships. The brand IDEA framework, to which we now turn, is intended to help organizations leverage these recent trends and integrate the elements of the new paradigm. The framework allows organizations to manage their brands in a way that recognizes the strategic nature and mission impact of a brand, encourages participative engagement with internal and external stakeholders, and addresses the important role the brand plays in promoting partnerships.

Introduction to the Brand IDEA

The brand IDEA encompasses three principles: brand Integrity, brand Democracy, and brand Affinity. Brand Integrity places the mission and values at the center of the brand and is the result of the alignment between mission, values, and brand identity on the one hand and brand identity and image on the other. To be clear, the word integrity here is used in the sense of structural integrity or alignment, and not just moral integrity. When the organization’s values and mission are consistently aligned with its brand identity, and when this identity is consistently aligned with the external image, the nonprofit brand is able to establish a clear, distinct, consistent, and credible position in the minds of both internal and external stakeholders. Internally, a brand with high structural integrity connects the mission to the identity of the organization, giving board members, staff, volunteers, and other internal stakeholders a common sense of who the organization is, what it does, and why it matters in the world. Externally, a brand with high structural integrity firmly aligns brand identity and brand image, so that there is no disconnect between the internal and external perceptions of the brand. When the brand image truly reflects the brand identity and the brand identity reflects the mission, the brand is authentic, consistent, and powerfully positioned to create organizational cohesion and trust among all the organization’s stakeholders.

Having a clear brand identity gives one the ability to succinctly describe who the organization is, what it stands for, and why it is important. It’s about knowing how and why your organization is making a difference and how it differs from other players, and letting that knowledge guide your decisions and actions. “Isn’t that just my mission?” we have been asked. In a way, it is. Both the organization’s mission and its values should be embedded in the brand identity. However, we believe that it is also how that brand identity is developed and communicated, as well as how the brand is managed to maximize mission impact, that are important in the brand IDEA framework.

Brand image comprises the feelings and perceptions that exist in the hearts and minds of external stakeholders when they think about your organization. The alignment between who you are (identity) and how people perceive you (image) is what creates powerful, trusted brands and is at the heart of the brand Integrity principle.

Part of brand Integrity is also concerned with ensuring that the brand itself and the way in which the brand is deployed embody and reflect the core values of the organization. Just as brand Integrity aligns and cements the brand with mission, it also aligns both the brand identity and the brand image with the core values and culture of the organization. Not only is the establishment of a brand rooted in ethics and values; the use of that brand, internally and externally, is also anchored in those same ethics and values.

Alignment doesn’t depend on large budgets and slick advertising. The ability to create brand Integrity lies in brand Democracy, a participative process that engages people throughout the organization and beyond the organization’s boundaries, with the result that all stakeholders become brand ambassadors. Brand Integrity can be thought of as a desired state or goal; brand Democracy, to which we now turn, is, in part, the means or process by which brand Integrity is achieved.

Brand Democracy is the process of engaging internal and external stakeholders. It means that the nonprofit organization trusts its members, staff, participants, and volunteers to participate in both the development of the organization’s brand identity and the communication of that identity. By brand Democracy, we do not mean that everyone gets to “vote” on the brand, but it does mean that there is stakeholder participation. Internal and external stakeholders are engaged in the process of defining, refining, articulating, and communicating the organization’s brand identity. In this way, everyone develops a clear understanding of the organization’s core identity and can become an effective brand advocate and ambassador. Every employee and volunteer authentically and personally communicates the essence of the brand. As a result, the need to exert control over how the brand is presented and portrayed in order to ensure strict consistency is largely eliminated. Noah Manduke, president of social sector brand consultancy Durable Good and former chief strategy officer, Jeff Skoll Group, conveyed the essence of brand Democracy, explaining that organizations need “a deliberate process that brings people from awareness (I know) to understanding (I know why) to adoption (I know how) to internalizing the brand (I believe).”

With the rise in social media, brand control is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible. We believe that the concept of brand Democracy extends beyond the traditional boundaries of the organization, which are becoming increasingly porous, to include external audiences, such as patrons, donors, volunteers, partners, supporters, or anyone blogging or tweeting about an organization. Brand Democracy does not imply brand anarchy. What it does suggest is a new approach to brand management that promotes the participative engagement of all stakeholders in both the definition and communication of the brand. When brand Democracy is conducted with a view to achieving brand Integrity, the organization’s mission and values define the context for brand Democracy and provide the parameters or bounds guiding its implementation. The process of brand Democracy itself engages stakeholders in a meaningful way, creating organizational cohesion and consistency in internal understanding and adoption of brand identity. Brand Democracy taps into the opportunities that social media creates and engages external audiences, enabling organizations to more effectively implement their mission and drive social impact.

Brand Affinity is an approach to brand management whose focus is on shared social impact, rather than on individual organizational goals. Increasingly, many nonprofit organizations recognize that their ambitious, multifaceted, and long-term social objectives cannot be achieved alone, and that they need partners if they are to achieve the impact they seek. Organizations implementing brand Affinity use their brands in support of these broad social goals, in a way that goes beyond capacity building for their own individual organizations. Brands with high brand Affinity work well with other organizations and their brands, sharing space and credit generously, promoting collective over individual interests, and emphasizing the external goal and cause rather than the individual organization.

Brand Affinity is a brand management approach designed to address complex issues that require the participation of multiple organizations. It is especially important for coalition and movement brands, for which a unique brand identity and image can be created to support a common cause. Brand Affinity taps into the power of partnerships, using brands collaboratively to drive mission and maximize social impact.

Excerpted from The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy and Affinity by Nathalie Laidler-Kylander and Julia Shepard Stenzel. Used with permission of Jossey-Bass Publishers, (c) 2014.