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Strategic Branding: How to Market a Growing Nonprofit

   /   Sep 17th, 2013Design, Finance, National, Opinion, South


As nonprofits feel the squeeze of funders cutting dollars for operating costs and organizations try to set themselves apart, many nonprofit managers focus on marketing individual programs and services first, and then building their own overarching brand as an afterthought.

Distinction between an organization’s programs can be an effective marketing tactic if used strategically and with purpose. One strategy is to distinctly target markets of funders, donors, and the impacted communities in a way that allows the organization to expand their audience. For instance, a community center’s SAT prep classes and senior aerobics will have different audiences and will appeal to different groups of donors.

Sometimes organizations want to isolate a program’s brand from the organization’s brand to make a statement about the relationship. Nonprofits with an associated PAC, for instance, may want to isolate the political arm for legal, political, and aesthetic reasons. Organizations may wish to do the same for non-mission related revenue generation.

However, nonprofits often splinter their outreach and marketing efforts unnecessarily, failing to establish the connection back to the overall organization.

On the most basic level, separate and distinct branding efforts for every program cut deeply into time available for marketing, as staff time devoted to public relations is usually extremely limited. For instance, building social media accounts for multiple programs may make those specific program managers happy, but the effort required to maintain a scattered following often outweighs any benefits. Divvying up that time further, instead of developing a strategy for the nonprofit as a whole, limits an organization’s overall brand.

This isn’t to say distinct branding efforts always damage an organization’s marketing. Some nonprofits have successfully used program outreach to further to their overall organizational brand.

The Sustainable Food Center, an Austin-based gardening and nutrition nonprofit, hosts its information on a basic, attractive, brand-consistent website. It also runs an associated farmer’s market, a project that requires a large amount of information to be distributed to the public. The Sustainable Food Center handles this by hosting a separate external website, complete with its own navigation and photos. However, rather than detracting from the value of the organization’s main site, the farmer’s market site adds value by promoting the organization through numerous links back to the original, keeping the general site cleaner and more navigable, and maintaining the main site’s layout and design.

There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. A new logo and color scheme for every new program may please graphic designers’ pockets, but campaigns most consistent with existing recognizable design elements are the most effective, both for the organization and for individual programs.

Of course, it’s also possible for nonprofits to fully integrate what they do into their overarching organizational umbrella. One of our previous clients, the Food is Free Project, grew very rapidly as it managed to pair the right audience to solutions at the right time. The Austin-based nonprofit launched in January 2012, focusing on helping city residents build low-cost community gardens in their front yards. It has already helped launch five sister branches and will start a youth outreach program, building gardens and teaching workshops in schools.

Through its growth, the project maintained consistency by shooting for a mission beyond the low-cost beds that have served as its bread and butter. The primary focus of the organization remains Austin’s front yard gardens, but Food is Free has been able to easily and cleanly sweep volunteer programs, extensive community outreach, and educational resources under its organizational umbrella by treating the basic projects as part of its wider vision. “The Food is Free Project grows community and food, while helping gain independence from a broken agricultural system,” reads its website, leaving the door open for a natural progression to many more efforts.

Cause based organizations frequently spring-up to fill a small niche. They can grow rapidly after establishing themselves and can lose focus. Often, a divergence of branding is the result of growing pains, as an organization moves beyond its original mission. When the scope of an organization grows, the mission and branding must grow with it.

Photo Courtesy of Open Source (Flickr).

This is a guest post by Clare Shepherd, a consultant at Loken Creative: an Austin-based marketing agency for cause-based organizations. 

2 Responses

  1. [...] so good! Dowser’s How To Market A Growing Nonprofit reminds us to be mindful of branding as we [...]

  2. Wow, great read. I’m researching for a project I’m doing with a nonprofit. Your article is very enlightening. I agree with the point about starting a Twitter account for every new idea, not smart. As well, designing a new logo for every little thing you do under the sun is not wise either.
    A nonprofit’s brand being defined by what programs they execute is an interesting thought. In the future I hope ALL organizations are defined by what they do, not what the say they do.

    Again, great read. Many thanks!