Nonprofit Brands in the Age of Supporter Shift (Part 1)


In the Supporter Shift series, Blackbaud CEO Marc Chardon and outcomes guide Hal Williams continued their discussion about nonprofit results, exploring the effects of generational shift -- and a related shift in expectations. In this series, the authors return with a focus on the nonprofit brand, an essential ingredient in supporters' search for meaning.

When we were kids, no one talked about branding, that is, unless they meant cows. They did talk about individual brands here and there, but not about brands in the broader sense, about what they stood for or the value they held for those who aligned with them. In a very general sense, brands were associated with a handful of specific products that have taken a nostalgic place in our memories... like Campbell's or Wrigley.

Back then, there weren't as many national brands. Life was much more local. The interstate highway system, authorized by the federal government in 1956, was brand new, and the network of high-speed roads that now crisscross this country were just beginning to be built. At the same time, the earliest chain restaurants were starting to transform from small restaurants to the franchise model. With highways came big-brand fast food, billboard advertising and access to places in the country that used to be too expensive to reach. That reach exposed us to new and different brands and gave those same brands a channel to reach consumers. The world was beginning to flatten.

Fast forward to today, and the network of "roads" that provide access to whatever we want makes us think about tech all-stars like Gates, not Eisenhower. Access comes to us through our computers and phones via the information super highway. Concepts that used to be local (like the yellow ribbon tied around a tree to symbolize support for the troops) are now digital (Twibbons on your avatar). In this Web 2.0 world, commercial ventures are woven into every aspect of our lives. We engage with so many brands every day that we'd be hard pressed to actually count them. They're just there, a part of our lives. We actively endorse what we like through how we spend, what we wear, what we drive, what we do for a living and what we say to peers on the Web. We've evolved to a point where, brands -- and a focus on branding -- are everywhere. And brands have become especially important in the nonprofit sector.

Why should nonprofits care? Although their missions are vital, it's their brands that define the organizations. And, as generations shift, brands need to stay relevant. Our parents may have donated to longstanding, trusted nonprofits without many questions, but our Millennial children are different, bringing their own unique approach to engaging with nonprofits that's all about the brand and what it promises. Is the nonprofit you're invested in (whether it be with your time, talent, or treasure) ready?