Why developing your brand is essential for Nonprofits, development organisations and NGOs

Written by Owen Priestley on 10th July 2023

(Last updated 18th January 2024)

This article was co-authored by Alyssa Palmquist, Project Officer at the World Health Organisation, and Owen Priestley, Liquid Light's Strategy Director. 

Growth in the number of NGOs and development organisations over the last few years, combined with the current social and economic crisis much of the world is facing, is resulting in an increase in competition for public and private funding. 

Looking at research undertaken by Eldelman (the Eldelman Trust Barometer, 2021) it appears that trust in our governments, media and NGOs is also suffering after being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and what some have termed the ‘infodemic’ that resulted.

This confluence of factors has resulted in a huge challenge these organisations now face: how to effectively fundraise, influence donors’ decisions, and build trust by effectively communicating their mission and mandate. In turn, many NGO leaders are now recognising the importance that a well thought-out marketing and brand development strategy can bring to their organisation.

When working with nonprofit and NGO clients, introducing the subject of brand development can be met with trepidation. Traditionally large charities, such as UNICEF or WWF, fully understand the importance of marketing and branding. Their objective is to raise awareness and generate funds, and they have been honing their marketing, fundraising and outreach skills for many years.

But for many small to medium nonprofit organisations, their objectives are rather different. Funded by grants and governments, and not by public donations, their communications objectives are focussed more on proving worth and illustrating impact and effectiveness. 

Their primary audience is not the general public but rather their unique stakeholders, such as their community or membership base, and also the minority who provide, or have influence over, their funding.

With this scenario many leaders of these types of organisations may not see the added value of focusing on brand development and the additional costs that this entails. In other words, branding can be seen as a commercial endeavour and leaders can be concerned that the expenditure and focus on branding may deflect from the important work they do. Branding can also be perceived as a distraction - as an endeavour that is flippant, that prioritises style over substance, or that cheapens their mission or mandate.

Compounding this issue is that many large organisations also have many different projects and initiatives which can be their own independent (and sometimes separately funded) entities. These activities can dilute an organisation's ability to present itself as a coherent whole. Yet without cohesive brand governance around these initiatives, projects and other activities, an organisation's identity becomes blurred and its core messaging is lost. Ultimately, this impacts trust and long-term sustainability.

So why is branding for NGOs and nonprofits important?


As mentioned, the nonprofit space is becoming increasingly cluttered. For example, we often see scenarios where organisations are vying for attention (and funding) as mandates are shared across them. Many of the organisations we work with also have an ‘open house’ philosophy, and do not see themselves as having ‘competitors’ in the traditional sense of the word. They will want to (or already do) work with similar organisations, and thus will try to focus their efforts and resources accordingly. However, this is not always the case, and often an organisation will have an offering but their marketing approach fails to communicate how unique they are and what value they add within their sector or focus areas. 

Elucidating their position, articulating the uniqueness of their mandate, and communicating this in a clear manner is a vital part of brand development for any organisation.

Consistency and coherence

An important aspect of an effective and well-governed brand is its consistency across all manifestations of your organisation – be that internal communications to staff or through more campaign-related material targeted at a certain audience. 

Regardless of audience or platform, the core message should be the same, e.g. it should communicate the what, why and how of the unique value and impact of the organisation. 

Another important aspect of a good brand is its coherence by making sure messages are clear and concise. More importantly, by making sure that your messages are shared amongst all your communications and networks and are not diluted or bent out of shape. This includes providing key stakeholders with a core set of key messages, such as an ‘elevator pitch’, and assets, such as branded presentation decks, templates or brochures, that will form a foundation for your strategy across a variety of contexts. A consistent and coherent brand will lead to many of the points outlined below.

Continuity and trust

How does an organisation imbue trust? Mostly through the actions and deeds it performs, and the interactions the organisation has with its audience.

In the same way that incoherence and inconsistency can breed confusion, continuity can breed trust. 

An organisation that has maintained a well-governed brand over a number of years projects a trusting outlook that, in turn, fosters confidence among donors and partners as well as a potential pool of new supporters. Cultural associations and a feeling of heritage or ownership will only arise with a brand that projects itself in a consistent way over a long period of time. Therefore, the brand should also reflect the local culture and context of where the organisation conducts business. An organisation should also conduct due diligence for any new markets it wishes to enter and adjust its strategy accordingly. This can include, for example, key stakeholder interviews and a messaging architecture specific to a particular geography or context but still faithful to the overall brand.

Recall and recognition

A by-product of a consistent brand is the recognition that your brand will have in the wider world. In other words, an eye-catching, dynamic and engaging visual brand will aid in the recall of your organisation and will also help build awareness among uninitiated audiences. Think, for example, of some of the world’s most recognisable brands and the immediate associations they create with just a simple but engaging graphic or shape. In this sense, it is important for a brand to have a unique visual element that will stand out against other similar entities.

Efficiency and reach

A coherent, consistent and continuous brand framework not only brings recognition to your organisations, it can also ease production of communications assets and deliverables. For example, tone of voice guidelines can aid in drafting copy or talking points, and ready-to-use design templates for social media posts, presentations, campaign materials etc. means that new material is never a case of starting from scratch. All of this can help in getting your communication assets built at speed and at scale within a rapidly-evolving landscape where a lack of adaptability, innovation and flexibility has become a growing risk. This is particularly important for social media, where trends can emerge at a moment’s notice and where it might be important for your organisation to meaningfully engage in the conversation. 

In summary

A strong brand strategy should be a top priority for every nonprofit and development organisation in today’s landscape. Without a clear idea of who, what, why, and how - shared within the framework of a consistent and effective brand identity - the risks of losing both focus and funding become more apparent. 

In the context of growing social, economic and political crises, people are seeking to understand which organisations best align with their values and how they can engage. The proliferation of social media platforms has also created a ‘public square’ with higher risks of losing control of your narrative if you lack clear and consistent messaging. On the flip side, they also create many more opportunities to reach new audiences. By maintaining the status quo and relying on historical relationships, organisations lose out on this untapped potential. In addition, without a compelling visual identity and call to action it is easy for their message to get lost in the noise of so many different voices competing for attention. 

Small-to-medium enterprises can look both to one another and to larger organisations for best practices and knowledge exchange in this area. By creating mutually-beneficial frameworks, they can reach more people with more impact and more sustainability.  

Ultimately, an effective branding strategy articulates the unique position of the organisation, provides a coherent and consistent set of key messages that reinforce this stance, builds trust among stakeholders through a consistent and culturally-responsive approach, and builds a strong foundation of scalable assets that can streamline production and reach new audiences.

This article was posted in Nonprofit, Brand development by Owen Priestley

  • Owen Priestley

    Owen Priestley

    Owen is an award winning designer, strategist and user experience practitioner with over 20 years experience working within the digital design and communication industry. @owen20three