A major component of nonprofit management is brand management – which can be particularly challenging in the context of our sector. If you feel as though you’d benefit from deepening your nonprofit brand management or brand strategy knowledge, The Brand Idea: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity is a compelling read.

The Brand Idea is a comprehensive guide for nonprofit professionals interested in effectively managing their brands in today’s marketplace. The authors present a new framework for nonprofit brand management that they have coined the brand IDEA (IDEA stands for integrity, democracy, and affinity). The book is a result of years of research to examine the role of brand in the nonprofit sector and a decade of the authors’ experience in the subject. The authors, Nathalie Laidler-Kylander and Julia Shepard Stenzel, are well established in the field; Kylander is a Lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Marketing Professor at The Fletcher School. Their findings were first published in an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.


NOT nonprofit branding

The Brand Idea pushes nonprofit professionals to recognize that branding is not a marketing and communications function but rather the embodiment of an organization’s mission and values. In many ways, this thinking is not necessarily a new paradigm but the book does a good job of demonstrating how this shift can be executed. For instance, gone are the days that an organization’s communications strategy is a one-way message filtered to an audience. Today, an organization’s marketing and communications strategy should be about participative engagement with audiences.

I also liked their thoughts that nonprofit brand management is not the same as for-profit brand management. The biggest differences between managing a nonprofit brand compared to a for-profit brand are:

  1. Brand is focused on the mission not the consumer
  2. Brand positioning is used for organizational clarity not to gain a competitive edge
  3. Brand management is used for participative engagement not control

Tapping into brand power: in three parts

Organized into three parts, the book starts with a section on the “context, concepts and building blocks” of brand management, crucial to any beginners in brand management. The second section of the book is all about “getting the brand idea” and is devoted to delving deeper into the concepts of integrity, democracy, and affinity. Finally, the book concludes with a section on “putting the brand idea into action”. Each chapter ends with a short summary that captures the important concepts covered in the chapter and there are also plenty of charts and illustrations throughout the book to drive home their ideas.

For most nonprofit communicators, the first section is a good overview and reminder of the importance of strong brand management but the real meat of the book comes in sections two and three. Section two outlines the three pillars: integrity, democracy, and affinity.

Managing with Integrity

Brand integrity is ensuring your brand identity aligns with the organization’s mission, vision, and values and then embedding that identity into the complete strategy for the organization, not simply the communications strategy. The authors cite the example of the Christian Children’s Fund who hired a new president and CEO and tasked her with finding a new name for the organization. Fortunately, the new president recognized the organization needed more than a new name; it needed to start with a strategy process that redefined the mission, vision, and values of the organization. Note: the authors repeatedly revisit this case study throughout the book to show how they successfully handled other aspects of brand management.

Another example demonstrates how brand integrity is used to support decision making. Amnesty international captured their rebrand efforts into an internal implementation guidebook to help in day-to-day decision making. They created the Little Yellow Book with the belief that the contents shouldn’t be memorized or prescriptive, but rather intended to encourage creativity.

Managing with Democracy

Brand democracy is the concept that an organization engages its board, staff, volunteers and other stakeholders in defining and communicating the brand. Again, the authors used three components to explain their theory:

  1. Brand identity is defined through a participative process
  2. Brand ambassadors are an organization’s internal and external stakeholders
  3. Brand management is a shift from control and policing to a democratic style that allows for flexibility within defined guidelines and templates

The idea of empowering brand ambassadors is described by the authors as an “exciting outcome” but I believe in today’s social media universe this empowerment is crucial. I agree that nonprofits must encourage participation from those outside of the organization in communicating their brand.

With brand management now being the responsibility of everyone in the organization, the use of guiding principles for your brand rather than strict controls is better approach – think more guidance counselor than logo cop. This should not mean a state of brand anarchy in your organization with departments or branches communicating the brand in his or her own way. It is a consultative, democratic process (something that nonprofits already do well) to achieve a single idea that is presented cohesively.

Managing with Affinity

Brand affinity represents an approach to brand management where the focus is on shared social impact rather than organizational goals. An organization that has their brand identity clearly defined, supported through brand democracy, should be confident to extending its brand to support other partnerships and coalitions that can maximize impact.

The driver of brand affinity centers on identifying and engaging key partnerships. The authors use the metaphor “if nonprofits work together, all boats will float on a rising tide.” A good example was the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts which enthusiastically supported the development of a website that showcased Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic; understanding the access and exposure to one organization can come from familiarity with another organization. Of course there can be challenges to this approach such as diluting an organization’s brand equity and the dangers of losing your organization’s brand in this new affinity, but the authors do address those concerns effectively

From theory to practice

The book concludes with a section on how your organization can put this theory into practice. They recommend implementing the brand IDEA into two themes:

  1. Implement brand integrity through brand democracy
  2. Create brand affinity for impact

The key elements they drove home in this chapter were:

  1. Start with research and assessment to know how your organization is perceived and understand your key audiences
  2. Drive alignment of your brand with organization mission and image
  3. Support your brand ambassadors
  4. Create affinity for impact
  5. Measure effectiveness, external trust and capacity.

The book offers handy tables that outline tools and tactics to help you achieve these objectives as well as suggested questions to guide you through the measurement phase. The section also provides case studies for specific situations such as rebranding (nonprofitmarcommunity.com recently posted a great case study on rebranding), managing sub-brands, campaign brands, and organizational mergers. The final concluding chapter, “You Can Do It”, describes the brand idea by function and outlines the roles and responsibilities of an organization’s president, board, field staff, volunteers, and donors.

Although The Brand Idea has lots to offer readers, I found some sections were lacking. For instance, several chapters concluded with a brief 1½ pages about the challenges or concerns nonprofit communications professionals may face when implementing philosophies such as brand democracy or brand affinity. Considering there could be strong pushback from senior management or board directors on these topics, I felt the authors could have done a better job addressing these challenges head on.

Despite that shortcoming, The Brand Idea is an empowering book for the communications professional or anyone interested in evolving a nonprofit to greatness.

Suzanne Hallsworth

Suzanne Hallsworth

VP, Development & Communications at Oakville Hospital Foundation
Suzanne Hallsworth is the VP, Development & Communications for the Oakville Hospital Foundation. In her role, she leads the annual giving, community fundraising, and special events teams and develops marketing communication strategies to help the Foundation reach its fundraising goals. Suzanne has been working in the nonprofit sector for more than a decade following an earlier career in the book publishing industry.
Suzanne Hallsworth
Suzanne Hallsworth