Author’s note: This blog was originally written in 2014 and was updated in 2020 to reflect current information and practices.

Your nonprofit does important work, serves people with needed programs and services, and enriches your community through the efforts of dedicated volunteers and staff members. Yet you feel your organization’s public profile isn’t as compelling as it could be; people aren’t clear about who you are and what you do. Brand guidelines can help you achieve that clarity.

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 awareness and comprehension.

12 elements to include 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 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, as well as a secondary version that would be appropriate for one colour design needs. Details can include relative measurements, dedicated white space around the brandmark, as well as pantone/HTML colour specifics. Don’t forget to address preferred positioning for your brandmark, as well as examples of improper use. Imagine Canada’s 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, the United Way Centreaide Canada guidelines describe their English, French, and bilingual configurations 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 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. Food Banks Canada’s brand guidelines detail their primary and secondary palettes as well as colour tints that can be used to represent the organization (pages 17-19).

Photography and Videography

Thinking about the photo and video 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 or not? Posed or natural? Indoor or outdoor settings (or both)? On page 13 of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada’s brand guide they describe their preferred style, usage and treatments.


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. All types of signage should be considered, like the YMCAs in Canada guidance for interior and exterior signage (pages 55-56) and UBC’s guidelines (University of BC) regarding digital signage.

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 described on pages 57-59 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 you create 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 (mission or ultimate aim) level, and why you’re unique. Consider including how you would describe the brand’s personality 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 challenge conventions. Habitat for Humanity Canada’s brand guide (page 19) describes their brand personality and tone.

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 6 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 page 39 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 as well as sub-messages that provide additional context/details in support of your main points. UNICEF Canada’s guide outlines key messages related to the main pillars of their work.


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 form of 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 streamline all aspects of your communications, making messages clear and easy for your audiences to understand. It should be considered a living document; as much as you are establishing standards you will also find new areas to 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

Angela de Burger is a communications professional who is passionately curious about the way individuals and organizations express themselves and connect to each other.
Angela de Burger