Your nonprofit does important work, serves people who need your programs/services, and enriches your community through the efforts of dedicated volunteers and staff members. Yet you feel your organization’s public profile is not as compelling as it could be; people aren’t clear about who you are and what you do. This is where brand guidelines come in.

Establishing brand guidelines

Establishing brand guidelines is an important component of increasing visibility and understanding. Consistency within the visual and messaging elements of your brand is incredibly effective and will drive an improvement in awareness and comprehension.

12 elements to including in your #nonprofit's brand guidelines by @adeburger #NPMC #marketing Click To Tweet

Top 7 visual identity elements to include

Creating an easy-to-understand and straightforward-to-implement visual identity section within your brand guidelines takes some time and effort. The benefit? You’ll see increased consistency across all of your nonprofit’s communications channels.

Your brandmark (logo)

Identify the specific design of your brandmark, including both primary and secondary approved versions.

This may include a primary version that’s full-colour, and a secondary version that would be appropriate for one-colour design needs. Details can include relative measurements, dedicated white space around the brandmark, and pantone/HTML colour specifics. Don’t forget to address preferred positioning for your brandmark, as well as examples of improper use. The United Way Centreaide Canada graphic guidelines describe their elements in detail.

Use of your name

Naming conventions should be addressed here, including circumstances where a shortened/abbreviated version of your name should/could be used (or not). For example, Imagine Education au/in Canada specifies the correct use of their name very precisely.


Consider specifying a font(s) that matches your brand’s personality and conveys your information in the most appropriate way. If you create pieces in-house as well as via contracted designers, ensure you select fonts that are readily available to both so consistency can be maintained. See how the University of Waterloo uses a variety of primary and secondary fonts.

Colour palette

The personality of your brand can be expressed through colour, and can help you stand out if applied consistently and liberally. You can identify a primary and secondary colour palette to keep options open, yet maintain control over how the nonprofit is identified through its colour choices. The YMCAs in Canada use two bold and energetic reds, supported by a distinct and functional secondary palette, as specified in the colour palette section on page 3.15 of our brand guidelines.


Thinking about the photographic style that best matches your brand’s identity means you can get specific about appropriate images to represent your brand. Does it make sense for the images to be formal or informal in composition? Should people be looking into the camera? Indoor or outdoor settings (or both)? On page 10 of the Starlight Children’s Foundation of Canada’s branding guidelines, the organization describes their preference for candid photography showing children and their families interacting – and their reason for this preference.


Internal and external signage is one of the most utilized and visible elements of your brand. Include details about design, sizing, and elements that ensure easy access for all users of your programs/services.  Starting on page 20, the City of Kelowna guidelines provide many examples of elements to consider.

Interior design

If you have physical locations, interior design can be utilized to express your brand’s approach. Think about colour, brandmark usage and placement, furniture style, and the overall layout of the space as we did on pages 3.26-3.28 in the YMCAs in Canada guidelines. 

Top 5 messaging elements to include

The time that goes into establishing a messaging platform within your nonprofit’s brand guidelines is well worth the effort. The roadmap created will ensure consistency and clarity for volunteers and staff members who communicate on your behalf every day.

Brand positioning and personality

Telling the story of your nonprofit grows out of knowing who you are at the core. Describe who you are as an organization, what you do at a strategic (ultimate aim) level, and why you’re unique. Consider including how you’d describe the brand’s personality attributes to help frame the language you’ll ultimately use. For example, if your brand wants to primarily be seen as nurturing goodwill, your messaging choices will likely be different from an organization that exists to create controversy. Using a corporate example, Adobe describes their brand personality as exceptional, involved, genuine and innovate on page three of their guidelines.

Tone of voice

If your nonprofit was a person, how would it speak? Think about the level of formality that’s suitable, style of conversation and how your brand personality will be expressed. Toastmasters International includes a voice and tone checklist on page 18 of their brand manual.

Grammar and style

Include details and examples of the words and phrases your nonprofit uses, including grammar and punctuation. If you follow a specific style guide (i.e.: Canadian Press Stylebook) state the guide and version, as well as any exceptions that are unique to your nonprofit. For example, see how Canadian spelling is addressed on pages 42-43 of the Girl Guides of Canada style guidelines.

Key messages

Consider the messages you need to communicate to your audiences, and how they should be expressed. You may have a few key messages that are paramount to your communication strategy, and sub-messages that provide additional context/details in support of your main points. The University of Lethbridge has overall key messages, as well as key messages for each faculty/school.


Your nonprofit likely communicates with many different audiences, and messages for each need to be framed differently to meet their individual needs. When crafting any communication, think about your internal as well as external audiences. The Canadian Cancer Society, talks about their audiences, and the importance of focusing on them, on page 23 of their brand guide.

7 visual ID and 5 messaging elements to include in your #nonprofit's #branding guidelines by @adeburger #NPMC Click To Tweet

A living document

Establishing brand guidelines for your nonprofit will make all aspects of your communications streamlined, clear and easier for your audiences to identify. It should be considered a living document; as much as you are establishing standards you will also find new areas to consider and address in future editions.

Take some time to document the unique way your nonprofit wishes to be represented by creating a comprehensive set of brand guidelines, and before long you will see the organization’s goals become a reality.

Angela de Burger

Angela de Burger

Manager, Communications at YMCA Canada
Angela de Burger is the Manager, Communications at YMCA Canada, a charity dedicated to improving the health and well-being of Canadians in body, mind and spirit. She is passionately curious about the way individuals and organizations express themselves.