Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nonprofit Identity and Branding

A piece on nonprofit brands in today's NYTimes ( called to mind some further thoughts. Non-profit organizations often overlook the value of creating a brand presence. Non-profit executives usually think more effectively about the content of their programs and services than about their marketing—either to potential users or to donors—and non-profits have generally been less than aggressive in making use of the brands that they have actually established.

There are, of course, gigantic exceptions, such as the Red Cross, the United Way, and the Salvation Army, but an argument could be made that while the first two have promoted their brands brilliantly, even the Salvation Army actually has not made full use of the enormous good will of its brand. Experience suggests that the universally familiar logo of the Salvation Army calls to the public mind a limited image of Christmas bell ringers, soup kitchens and religious charity, without building fully upon the quiet efficiency of an organization that offers a great variety of services and the lowest overhead cost of any large charity.

Defining identity, image and brand identity
The term identity often sounds like professional jargon when used to describe institutions. The more such an impression is stripped away, the more accurate (and useful) the idea. An institution’s identity is a lot like an individual’s. It refers to who you are in your entirety. As such, it is difficult to grasp or represent, but it is nonetheless essential.

The identity of an institution is expressed through actions, achievements, values, and goals. The challenge for an institution is to take this identity and represent it, internally and externally, for various vital purposes (admissions, faculty recruitment, fundraising, public relations, staff morale), and to convey it through strategies, messages, interactions, communications, and facilities.

Frequently confused with identity, image (the popular, surface perception of an institution) is one of the reflections of identity and its representation. Other outcomes of a well-articulated identity—somewhat more substantive—are a clear basis for institutional strategy, a more effective understanding of the achievability of the institution’s mission, increased revenues (through such means as programs, grants, public support, and fundraising), possibly cost-efficiencies, and a more secure future.

Brand identity, like identity, is often reduced to its use by graphic designers, to mean the last (and least) stage in developing brand identity, the logo, signage, and packaging. Even for consumer products, brand identity is about more than the cereal box or the candy wrapper—it is the summary term for all that distinguishes one product from another, real or imagined.

Why are these distinctions important?
Identity is the essential nature of the institution; brand identity is this essence viewed as a product to be marketed. Brand identity for non-profits offers a framework to communicate vision, mission, programs, and services. It is, essentially, the expression of an institution’s mission in the language of the marketplace.

The more robustly one defines brand identity to encompass institutional character, values, unique assets, and all of the messages to be conveyed by all of the means available to convey them, the more the idea can be used to tie together much of institutional strategy in a meaningful and powerful way. It can help an institution to focus on the most important issues in context, keeping in sight the broad strategic directions that all actions and messages should support.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Facilities and business plans

An article in the Times yesterday ("For Colleges Needing Cash, Summer’s No Longer a Quiet Season" takes a look at how colleges are using their campuses during the summer to generate revenue. While this is no doubt an intensifying trend, it is by no means new to the current downturn. For years nonprofits have been trying to address uneven distribution of facility use over the course of the year (colleges and schools), the week (also museums and theaters), and the day (also hospitals).

Further, focusing on facility use alone, the Times neglects to note some related opportunities. For example, a college or independent school can use summer programs not only for direct revenue, but also to
• build its market: by developing programs that appeal to prospective applicants, the school or college can increase its pool of appropriate and informed applicants, and improve its yield from acceptances.
• capitalize on its brand: institutional and faculty reputation can be an appealing draw for special programs for students and families unable or unlikely to enroll in degree programs.
• develop a virtuous cycle of brand promotion, revenue creation, increased applications and selectivity, and improvements in quality of facilities and offerings.

To pursue these benefits with optimal chance for success and minimal risk, an institution needs to develop a serious business plan. As the wisdom has it, "nonprofit" is a tax status, not a business model. All of the standard business planning elements of market analysis, business strategy, financial goals, resource requirements and organizational structure must be addressed.

Unlike strategic planning, which focuses on building consensus around mission, and program planning, which is based in the professional expertise of staff, business planning involves skills that often are undervalued in the nonprofit world.

A few years ago it seemed that every client wanted to include a revenue-producing conference center—or rental athletic space—into projects, on the Field of Dreams assumption.Business planning usually cast serious doubt on the financial promise of these ideas, but that did not always convince the leaders that they might not produce the revenue needed to support other facilities.

Supplemental revenue programs offer many potential benefits to a nonprofit, but only if they are evaluated objectively and rigorously.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Listen. Wholesale.

A few thoughts from my just-released e-letter, Critical Issues #2: The Secret Life of Surveys:

Says Who?
The leadership of an organization is likely to be more knowledgeable about the attitudes, interests and concerns of people like themselves than of those with a different stake in the organization and its mission. In membership organizations we have found that interesting issues pop out when we compare survey responses of new, medium-term, and long-term members; members of different ages and life stages, and members who participate primarily in different aspects of the organization, among other variables. This information can help the organization to tailor programs, services and communications to enhance value and retention.

Self Assessment
A board of trustees self assessment can be another good use of online survey tools. This can be an effective way to start a comprehensive planning process. A self assessment focuses trustees on the board's performance as a whole, and on their individual performance within that context. This prepares them to approach organizational planning with the requisite self awareness. There are good packaged self assessment tools available for license. Often special circumstances require a different set of questions, and a custom tool may be better.

Conducting a Survey
What is the advantage of using a third party to shape, conduct and analyze a survey? Expertise in constructing questions and analyzing answers will make it far more likely that your data will be meaningful, and that you will have used the survey most effectively to convey information and start a two-way conversation. A third-party e-mail address as the survey's source will get you more honest answers, allow for neutral filtering of raw data, and allow you to pursue non-responders to drive up the participation rate.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Is Salvation a Kroc?

A cousin of mine used to say that free advice is worth what you pay for it. While not terribly original, he was also wrong. Free advice is often way too expensive. When you're getting something for free it can be tough to hold the person offering it accountable for timeliness or follow-through. This can lead to serious complications. But that's another discussion.

The issue today is that there are also generous gifts that organizations can't afford to accept. Note the article in today's Times ( about Joan Kroc's enormous bequest to the Salvation Army. The gift of $1.8 billion was restricted to building 30 new community centers. Mrs. Kroc stipulated a sum equal to construction cost be placed in an endowment for operations.

We recommend to clients that they should raise 30 to 40% more than the construction cost of a new building just for a maintenance endowment. (Since the project cost of a new building may be as much as twice the construction cost, the maintenance endowment might be more like 20% over the total funds needed to build the building. For more about these issues see Understanding Facilities: Essentials of Planning and Design, at

But that says nothing about the operating costs for the building (utilities, housekeeping), the programs or services provided in it (staff, equipment, supplies), or administrative overhead. Mrs. Kroc's endowment bequest may or may not have been sufficient to cover these ongoing costs. Apparently the Salvation Army concluded they were not.

We did some work for the Salvation Army around the time of the bequest, in 2003. They had some big concerns then about the gift: news of such a gargantuan gift could dampen the sense of urgent need on the part of other donors; at the same time, the gift was not directed precisely toward the core programs and services of the organization, and could be as much a distraction as a benefit; the lavishness of the intended facilities could be a challenge to the austere brand identity (my words) of the Salvation Army.

While other nonprofits will likely not have to deal with gifts within even several orders of magnitude of the Kroc bequest, the lessons of it are important ones. Mission, not donors, should drive the direction of an organization. And the real costs of any venture need to be considered from the start.