Monday, February 8, 2010

Identity, brand and image

This week's Wednesday Webinar is What is a brand; and why does it matter to nonprofit organizations?. Here are some related thoughts.

The term identity may sound like misconceived corporate jargon when used to describe nonprofit organizations and institutions. Actually, it is an incredibly useful and important concept.

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 is nonetheless essential.

The identity of an institution is established through mission, values, actions and achievements. Once established, the challenge for an institution is to take this identity and represent it, internally and externally, for various vital purposes (admissions/subscriptions/participation, fundraising, public relations, staff morale, etc.), and to convey it through strategies, messages, interactions, communications, and facilities. You might call it substance distilled.

Identity is the essential nature of the institution, its reality; brand (or somewhat confusingly, brand identity) is this essence as it is perceived. It is, essentially, the projection of an institution’s mission into the marketplace.

Brand, 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 other 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. For non-profits the concept of a brand offers a framework to communicate vision, mission, programs, and services.

Frequently confused with identity or brand, image is just the surface reflection of them—the popular perception at a specific moment. (The challenges of teenage life might put these all in perspective.)

Why are these distinctions important?

Substantive outcomes of a well-articulated identity are a clear basis for institutional strategy, a better 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.

The more robustly one defines identity and brand 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 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.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Trustee Handbook

The trustee handbook—or board manual—is an essential document for the sustainable nonprofit. After a brief description of its contents, we’ll take a glance at the role it plays in each of the five fundamental responsibilities of a nonprofit board (fundraising, strategic planning, hiring and evaluation of the chief executive, fiduciary responsibility, and self-perpetuation).

A generic outline for a trustee handbook might look like this:

  • Board documents
    • Board responsibilities (job descriptions for board officers and committees; committee and task force protocols and policies; description of oversight of chief executive)
    • Trustees (job description; individual service plan description and form, list of current and past trustees)
    • Board policies
    • Board meetings (pre-meeting preparation; meeting protocol; meeting calendar)
    • Board development (processes for recruitment and nomination; orientation; ongoing education and training; leadership development)
    • Board self assessment process
    • Current information (list of current trustees with terms and capsule biographies; minutes of board meetings; recent reports, including those from the chief executive)
  • Organizational strategy
    • Mission statement and related documents
    • Strategic plan with updates
  • Organizational context
    • Brief written history and fact sheet
    • Organizational chart and staff directory
    • Annual calendar
    • Legal documents (articles of incorporation, bylaws, IRS determination letter, insurance and risk management information, conflict of interest policy)
    • Operations (descriptions, policies, procedures for functional areas, such as advancement, finance, human resources, programs)
  • Fundraising and finance
    • Prior-year annual report
    • Current annual budget and financial statements
    • Current fundraising plan
    • Most recent audit report

This collected and organized information is useful for giving trustees context for discussions of fundraising. Your trustees need to be effective ambassadors and solicitors. The trustee handbook serves as a briefing book so that even new trustees can have a sound and comprehensive basic knowledge of the organization.

The handbook is even more central to informed evaluation of the organization’s strategy and the performance of its chief executive. Nonprofit boards often fall short in these areas because trustees are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the organization to engage the judgment that made them attractive to the board in the first place. Hence the definition of a nonprofit board as an ineffective group of effective people.

However, it is in the other two responsibilities of the board that the trustee handbook serves its most critical purpose.

It is difficult to understand how a board can exercise its fiduciary responsibility (stewardship of the mission and of the financial and legal obligations of the organization) without easy and organized access to documentation of the situation, strategy, policies, compliance, and history of the organization. Yet many boards simply don’t pull this information together. Trustees who would have much to offer to deliberative discussions actually tune out for lack of knowledge of the background of the issues.

Finally, to sustain a nonprofit over time, a board has to attend to its own strength and renewal. While this is a subject that could easily take us into a much larger discussion, suffice it to say that the fundamental document for effective recruitment and orientation of new trustees, and development of the capacity of existing ones, is a comprehensive trustee handbook.

The irony of the rarity of comprehensive, current and accessible trustee handbooks is that much of the material already exists. Sometimes even in the files of trustees. It’s just not organized and maintained in a way that makes it accessible. Ideally the handbook will be accessible online so that it can be updated easily and always at hand for trustee use.

This post is one of several follow-ups to Critical Issues #4: On Boards.