Why Your Foundation Needs a Great Brand - Exponent Philanthropy
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Why Your Foundation Needs a Great Brand

Image from Smith & Connors

What’s your foundation’s brand? Many foundations don’t recognize the value of investing in their brand. Yet, organizations that prioritize and integrate strategic communications into their core operations have a distinct advantage meeting their goals and executing their missions.

What Is a Foundation Brand?

Your foundation brand isn’t your logo. Your brand is the complex mix of thoughts, feelings, and impressions people have about your foundation. It builds over time and is conveyed to audiences through visual identity, what you say or do, or even what others, including your grantees and partners, say about you and your work.

There’s no such thing as NOT having a brand. Brand happens no matter what you do. When we do “branding” for an organization, we’re defining what we want those thoughts, feelings, and impressions to be. However, you have to be authentic. Your audiences will pick up quickly on any gap between who you are and what you say about yourself. You’re trying to do good in the world. But what represents the best of who you are and want to be?

When building a strategic brand, you are defining or stating:

  • Core messaging (mission, vision, values).
  • Your organization’s personality — what roles do you play and what’s your style?
  • Your position in the landscape (what makes you unique and what space can you own).
  • What messages you should use, written for each audience type.
  • Your voice and tone.
  • A visual system that conveys some or all of the above in a logo, colors, type styles, and graphic expression.

All together, your brand becomes the foundational layer upon which you can build consistent, clear communications in many ways.

Here are a few reasons why foundations need great branding:

Building Differentiation

As a grantmaker, you’re trying to be effective and create positive change. To do so requires financial resources but also trust, confidence, the ability to convey a clarity of purpose, and to explain what’s different about your organization. You want your partners, staff, board, grantees, and your peer organizations to know what you stand for so they want to work with you. 

Clarity and Alignment

A common challenge is that people in organizations often are using differing messages that can dilute efforts and confuse audiences. A good brand defines clearly who you’re talking to, what matters to them, and how to get (and keep) their attention. And when internal leaders are consistent, this alignment projects outward. That’s often the biggest benefit of branding and communications projects, especially in smaller and family-led organizations—everyone in the organization suddenly have conversations they’d never had before, and they find themselves in alignment for the first time. That has positive ripple effects for years.  

Trust Grows Out of Consistency

A great brand presents audiences with a clear, succinct, consistent narrative that builds credibility. When people hear varying messages from your organization, they don’t know what to think, and that can erode trust, even internally. Creating that strategic messaging, documenting it, and operationalizing it can make decision-making easier at multiple levels. It can help you decide on board assignments, hiring, how to communicate with grantees, and much more. When all of these actions grow out of the same place, they rhyme, and people don’t have to guess—they really know who you are and can trust you.

 So, How Do You Start?

First and foremost, listen and have deep conversations. This process can be helpful to uncovering areas where you might be out of alignment.

Going a little deeper, here’s the process you can use to define your organization brand:

  1. Talk to your audiences. Talk to people from all of your audiences—including your board and staff—to find out what they need and what they think defines you. Ask: What makes you special? What fears and concerns do you address in your work that people really care about?
  2. See where you fit in. Look at other organizations in your space. You aren’t competing with them, but there’s still a landscape to consider. What makes you different?
  3. What is the essence of your approach? What is your mission and vision? What are your values? What do you believe in and what guides your decisions? What is the personality of your organization? What’s your style of interaction with partners and grantees? What do you want to say to the world?
  4. Put it all together. Then you can document all of this and refine it. Once it’s written down in one place, then you can always have this strategy handy as a foundational document.

You can do the work yourself, but it can be really helpful to get an outside perspective, if only because a consultant can be an impartial facilitator who’s used to asking the right questions. When your organization’s messaging and expression is dialed into people’s true longing, you are much more likely to resonate with your target audiences—and that’s really the whole point of developing a strategic brand.

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About the Author

Scott Smith is partner and strategy director at Smith & Connors, a brand and digital agency that serves mission-driven organizations.

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