What makes brand development more challenging for NGOs and development organisations

on 25th April 2023

(Last updated 8th November 2023)

Defining a brand

The term ‘brand’ can mean different things to different people. So firstly I’d like to define what I mean when I use the term. A brand is not a logo. It’s not a set of identity guidelines. It’s not a set of values or a company vision. It’s not even all of these things put together. A brand exists inside your audience's heads. It’s a gut feeling, arrived at independently by a group of people who use your product, service or organisation.

When put like that, a brand can seem intangible. But there’s still a reason ‘branding’ as an exercise exists; all of these things, your vision, your logo and your guidelines can all have an influence on the way people think about you. 

This is the same whether you’re a B2C, FMCG, B2B or in the NGO or Not for profit space. So where does brand development differ for NGOs?

There is no single NGO/development organisation type.

The term NGO/development organisation is quite broad. For example, an NGO aiming to conserve seed varieties is going to be different to an NGO that wants to give people more reproductive choice. However, there are similar challenges that most NGOs will face. It’s these challenges that make brand development different in this space as opposed to say in the B2C space. Below are a few of these challenges:

Stakeholder alignment

NGO’s often have a flat hierarchy with a democratic structure and a large stakeholder group. There is a danger here of ‘design by committee’. This leads to slow decision making, or worse, decisions that are made simply because they have the least resistance. It’s paramount that we make the right decisions no matter how difficult they are to come to. 

When we run brand development projects we need to tackle this by seeking feedback collaboratively in small incremental steps. This means that everyone is heard, and if there is a reversal we don’t need to go back too many steps to pick up the right path.

We find that NGOs are less likely to have in-house brand managers, and have teams spread throughout the world. This leads to them relying more heavily on agencies for brand governance and control, so making sure that stakeholder alignment doesn’t cause issues early in the process becomes even more important.

Brand Evolution over Revolution

It’s rare that an NGO needs to undergo a complete revolution in their brand identity. Over the years they have likely earned trust from other NGOs, partners and donors so a complete rebrand raises too many questions and can undo hard earned trust. This isn’t to say that NGOs don’t need to change or modernise their brand to adapt to a changing world. This is still important but we often find this needs to happen more incrementally. 

Competitor space and differentiation 

Businesses will often undergo brand development in order to differentiate themselves from the competition. By nature, NGOs are often working in partnership with these organisations who have a similar mandate to them. It’s still important to differentiate so that donors, governments stakeholders (etc) understand what makes the NGOs unique. However, it’s more nuanced and less about what makes an organisation ‘better’. Even the term ‘competitors’ is out of place, and not understood in the same way, which is why ‘comparators’ is more appropriate.

Budgets and ‘looking expensive’

When branding a B2B or B2C business, their audience will rarely think about how much money has been spent on branding. However, we need to be careful with NGOs as we don’t want a partner or donor to think that money has been spent frivolously. 

This is interesting because both NGOs and businesses want the same outcomes out of brand development. It’s just as important to an NGO as it is to a business, and budgets are comparable. That’s not to say that a branding project needs to be expensive, it’s that a branding project can take the same amount of time for NGOs as for businesses. It’s the same for both spaces. 

Having said that, if you're thinking of employing an agency for your branding project it’s worth finding out if they have a “not for profit” rate.

Complexity 

On the whole we find that NGOs have a much more complicated proposition to tell. They also often need their messaging to work equally well with partners who already have domain knowledge, as well as the general public who are equally as important as they are often the driver for the NGO to exist in the first place. This can result in content such as the brand story and messaging being more difficult to produce.


A final word…

Even though all NGOs are different, as you can see there are key considerations that  complicate the brand development process for NGOs, including diverse stakeholder groups, the need for evolution rather than revolution, the delicate balance between differentiation and collaboration, budget constraints, and the complexity of their proposition. 

Brand development is no less critical for NGOs than it is for commercial businesses. NGOs, perhaps more than any other entity, rely on the power of perception, trust, and authenticity to ensure their messages are heard, their missions are understood, and their impact is maximised.

A strong, authentic brand can aid in building trust with donors, establishing partnerships, and crucially, generating the support needed to effect change. It is an investment in the future, a cornerstone in the foundation of an NGO's long-term viability and effectiveness.

We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this and please do get in touch if you would like us to talk to you about your brand development project.

This article was posted in Nonprofit, Brand development, Design