If we ever thought that branding was just a way for companies to inspire consumers to buy, we were wrong. Great branding, especially for nonprofits, has increasingly been an avenue for moving thousands of people to feel passionately emotional, and to take action for positive change. Branding is also doing its part to drive revenue in the nonprofit community. At our panel about nonprofit rebranding at NYN Media’s MarkCon, Big Duck shared the findings from their comprehensive study of nonprofit rebranding, and the results point to a very strong business case for rebranding in the nonprofit world:
We all know that non profits are expected to minimize costs, but that objective often means we don’t invest in strategies that make organizations sustainable and competitive, like rebranding.
Maximizing the potential of vulnerable children and families is our bottom line. We want to expand our reach and impact in NYC, but what does it take to reach even more people? We need to trumpet our best work and make emotional connections with our staff and supporters, because that will inspire them to spread the word. A brand is a vital part of that effort.
As branding emerges from the realm of taboo for non profits and sheds its reputation as an exclusively corporate endeavor, it’s high time we developed our own best practices for rebranding, and ultimately for making a greater impact on our communities.
If you missed our contributions to the MarkCon rebranding panel discussion, take a look at some of our own takeaways from the dramatic Sheltering Arms rebrand, which took a name and identity that was first established in 1831, and brought it to life for generations to come. Share your own best practices in the comments section.
1. See Yourself Through the Eyes of Others
Rebranding begins with a process of self-discovery – a thorough exploration of what your organization represents in the eyes of the people who matter to you. During the discovery phase at Sheltering Arms, we hosted focus groups, gathered surveys, and conducted interviews with children and families, funders, board members, and staff from each of the programs we serve across four boroughs. We heard over and over again that we’re uniquely reliable as a high-impact leader and as a neighbor for those in need.
We chose our new name out of the shared vocabulary of our champions. Our communities responded by embracing the new brand, in spite of how dramatically we had pivoted. “The name Sheltering Arms has a feeling of caring and safety to it,” said one funder. “It’s incredible how the name Sheltering Arms honors a rich history in the City and allows for continued growth and an ability to remain current and relevant in the lives of NYC youth and families,” said another.
Even the children in our programs, who had known us under the name “Episcopal Social Services” for years, embraced the new name as a symbol of the impact we have had on their lives. “Sheltering Arms really changed my life,” said one teen in foster care, only days after the announcement of our new name. “I didn’t have a future when I wasn’t with this agency, or I didn’t see one. I didn’t see success. I saw myself just living day by day. Now I live by the future. I have goals. I have dreams now. I have things that I want to accomplish. This agency is a life-changer.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves!
2. Leverage Your Biggest Fans: Your Staff
It was tempting to think that our work was done once we had designed a new logo, selected a new name, and published a set of new materials, but we knew that our brand was much more than a website or a sign on a door. Our brand is felt in each conversation between a social worker and a child or a receptionist and a volunteer. Our brand is seen in the presentation of our facilities, maintained with care by our porters and administrative staff.
Our brand is articulated daily through the efforts of each one of our employees. They translate what we represent on a higher level into the experiences of our constituents on a daily basis. If they weren’t proud to represent us or empowered to share our message, it wouldn’t matter that we had developed a strong new brand identity.
We celebrated the launch of our new brand with more than 600 of our 1,000 staff at six events in three boroughs in one day! We hosted in-depth trainings for 400 staff within the first month of our brand launch – helping them internalize and share our message more authentically and enthusiastically than any spokesperson we could find.
In a recent interview with a funder, our Director of Early Childhood Education, Helen Davis, credited Sheltering Arms with giving her “the Awesome privilege of impacting the lives of hundreds of children.” She added, “I was most honored in 2010 when I attended the college graduation of one of our former preschool students who was on track to her degree as a medical physician. Over the years, as I travel throughout the city to our Early Learning Centers, so many children and their parents will stop me in the streets to share successes like these. I am constantly reminded of how thankful I am for the ability to make a difference in a child’s life at Sheltering Arms.” By empowering staff like Helen to tell our story of impact, we tapped one of our greatest resources – our human capital – to champion our new brand.
3. Walk the Walk
There are plenty of tales of rebranding gone wrong. At the core of many of them is a failure to align the new brand with what the organization actually does. In 2009, Radio Shack received criticism for its short-lived name change to “The Shack”. Though it was a more modern name, it apparently didn’t reflect any more modern inventory or business strategy. Consumers couldn’t take the new brand seriously, and Radio Shack abandoned the name.
When we changed our name, we knew we needed to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. When we say that we are an innovative organization that relies on evidence-proven methods for delivering positive impact in our communities, we know we need to continue to do it and show it, especially in a world dominated by user-generated content and peer-recommended consumption.
Sheltering Arms has been one of the first organizations in the City to incorporate evidence-based mental health services and expertise into our Early Childhood Education and Afterschool programs. We were also one of the few agencies selected by the City to implement gun violence de-escalation services, for which we were recognized in The New York Times. We must continue to bring the best resources available to our communities to live up to the promise of our new brand.
4. Don’t Stop Now!
With so much competing messaging in our hyper-connected world, we knew we needed to deliberately reinforce our new brand, even after we launched, in order for it to take root and grow.
We have maintained our momentum by consistently connecting with each of our constituent groups. For our staff, we’ve created a campaign to publish success stories from the children and families in our care, building pride among the dedicated workers who made change possible. For supporters, we’re working on a series of blog posts highlighting the work of our brand ambassadors, and what our new name means to each of them. We’ve managed to stay relevant, and maintain the excitement of the initial brand launch months after the change was announced.
Did it Work?
In their survey of non profit rebranding, Big Duck found that more than 50% of non profits saw an increase in revenue after rebranding. Organizations also reported increased confidence in staff’s ability to represent them and greater ease in recruiting board members. Big Duck’s findings hold true for Sheltering Arms as well.
At our 2015 gala and brand celebration, we raised more money than ever before to support groundbreaking programs for New Yorkers in need. We were able to attract honorees for the first time in a decade. Sheltering Arms has four new board members and HR recruiters have also been able to attract more talent leads than ever before. Engagement is up on social media, especially among excited staff, and traffic to our website has more than doubled since before the rebrand.
More importantly, our new brand showcases us at our best and allows us to build tangible, emotional connections with our communities. They have responded by showing us how proud they are to represent us and support us. As we translate support into expanded programs and interventions for kids and families, we’re confident in our ability to make a greater impact than ever before.