The Nonprofit Branding Bandwagon

Nonprofit Branding BandwagonI first wrote about the branding bandwagon back in 2007, when it seemed that every large nonprofit I knew was  spending serious money — and I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars —  for corporate style tag lines, logos, commercial partnerships and strategies that they thought would attract media coverage and recognition from potential donors. At the time I complained that, while I understood the desire to stand out from the crowd, I  thought nonprofits’ embrace of corporate branding practices was unwise in terms of mission fulfillment. Positioning a charitable organization as a corporate brand might impress some people, I conceded, but that wouldn’t necessarily move a nonprofit toward its mission, and it might serve to undermine the credibility of other nonprofits working on the same cause.

Social Change Organizations

I still hold this view and believe it is particularly true for those organizations dedicated to cultural change and social justice. Changing the world is a big and costly job. There’s plenty of work to go around, so why fight one another? It’s ironic that nonprofits are the only organizations expected to collaborate with their “competitors.” Look behind that irony, though, and you will see that there is some logic to this. There are very few, if any, nonprofit organizations that have truly unique missions. Mostly, the differences are matters of strategy and tactics – various ways of reaching similar goals and producing goods and services that benefit society. Social benefits such as housing the homeless, fighting for voting rights or preserving wilderness are not generally things from which profits can be made. That’s why nonprofit organizations exist in the first place.

Cooperation vs. Competition

In business, competition clearly drives innovation and improvement, but we need to ask ourselves if the same is really true in the nonprofit sector. When multiple organizations share a similar mission – one that is difficult and costs money rather than generates profits – it seems smarter to cooperate rather than spend resources to outshine one another. I continue to question why nonprofits — and those of us who work with them — have jumped on the branding bandwagon with so little thought of the long-term implications. I suppose the reason is based on fear. Fear of missing out on a big donation. Fear of seeing a rival quoted instead of oneself. Fear of not having clout in the advocacy arena. Advocates think — hope — that branding will position them to win and, to be frank, we consultants encourage it.

But what if nonprofits didn’t give in to the fear? What if the best of them partnered to apply jointly for funding? What if they divided up chunks of work and didn’t duplicate things that others were already doing? What if nonprofits insisted on having models of marketing, branding and communicating that were not mere grafts from the corporate world, but were designed and built just for the nonprofit universe?

A New Model

When I first asked those questions, there wasn’t much around that didn’t come right out of a typical corporate brand book. Now there is much more research being done to identify marketing techniques and ways of work that preserve each nonprofit’s distinctions, yet resist the pressure to compete when competition is unproductive. Among them is a new nonprofit branding framework developed by Harvard researcher Nathalie Kylander. Called IDEA, an acronym that stands for Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Affinity, the framework is featured in a book, The Brand IDEA, which Kylander co-authored with Julia Shepard Stenzel. It was released earlier this year by Jossey-Bass/Wiley. While I’m not entirely in love with this approach, I do think it has some constructive suggestions for nonprofit branding, particularly in its “Affinity” section.

You can read more about the role of branding in the nonprofit sector on the website of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University and in the Spring 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

A Bitcoin for Your Thoughts: Virtual Nonprofit Donations

Some nonprofits accept Bitcoin donations

Some nonprofits accept Bitcoin donations

At the end of last year, I asked several nonprofit experts to name the single most important thing that affected the nonprofit sector in 2013. Here’s what Eric Dubinsky of Dubinsky Consulting had to say:

“Bitcoin is my choice for 2013′s biggest potential impact on the nonprofit sector. While we are only at the beginning stages of exploring this largely uncharted territory…some NGO’s have begun to experiment with…virtual currency. I believe this should be a topic of discussion in every development department that is heavily invested in social media and online fundraising.”

Last week, when the University of Puget Sound announced it had received a donation of 14.5 Bitcoins ($10,000) from Nicolas Cary, a tech entrepreneur, I realized that Eric’s comment was not simply a creative reach, but prescient. I was also aware that, while I knew what Bitcoins were, I had no idea how they worked, or even if they were fully legal. So I did a little research.

What Is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin was created in 2009 by an individual or group that uses the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.  It is a virtual currency, more properly termed digital crypto-currency to denote that it exists only in digital form and is encrypted for security. It allows people to send money anywhere in the world for free. Totally decentralized, it completely bypasses the banking system. Because it is not controlled by any government or nation, it is considered a disruptive technology.

Bitcoins are easily transferred from users’ virtual wallets using a QR code and a cell phone. This makes it more competitive than credit cards in emerging markets, where one-third of humanity does not have access to banks but does use cell phones. As you might imagine, those who control the current global financial system are not enamored of Bitcoin (to say the least!)

How Does Bitcoin Work?

Nick Cary, the donor mentioned above, owns a company called Blockchain, which provides free digital wallets (accounts) for Bitcoins. He likens Bitcoin exchanges to email. Simple, free and easy to use. The value of a single Bitcoin can fluctuate wildly because it is not tied to an external regulator such as the Federal Reserve. Bitcoin value is determined by supply and demand. A Bitcoin is worth whatever someone will give you for it, usually in goods or services rather than a currency exchange.

There are already quite a few online merchants that trade in Bitcoins, notably Another e-commerce site I found,, takes Bitcoins in exchange for airfares and travel packages. Bitcoins can be purchased, sold, traded or ‘mined,’ which is a process done via special computer attachments. They are legal, although there have been cases where Bitcoins were used to conduct criminal activities, notably sales of illegal drugs.

Should My Nonprofit Accept Bitcoin Donations?

There are a surprising number of nonprofits that accept Bitcoin donations, including the Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Goshen, New York, JURN, a free site where you can search open-access academic journals in the arts and humanities, and Farm Forward, an organization that addresses the problems of factory farming. See the full list of nonprofits here.

If your nonprofit is considering Bitcoin, you may wonder about the proper way to record donations. According to The Nonprofit Watchman, a blog on the site of a public accounting firm called Batts, Morrison, Wales & Lee, “Even though bitcoin is a virtual currency, federal tax guidelines do not currently recognize it as cash for purposes of charitable contributions.  Accordingly, until and unless federal tax guidance provides otherwise, nonprofit organizations should treat a contribution of bitcoin as a noncash gift.”

Anything Else I Should Know About Bitcoin?

Forbes magazine contributor Perianne Boring (who wrote one of the most informative articles on Bitcoin that I could find), says that the biggest threat to the crypto-currency is government regulation. She also points out that the total number of Bitcoins is fixed at 21 million, but only about 12.3 million have been mined so far. Coins are given as a reward to miners who exchange the computational power of their computers to help run the Bitcoin network. In a sense, the coins are free to anyone who can figure out how to mine them. Better get digging, everyone.

Blinders Off! A Profile of Sarah Durham

Sarah Durham, Big Duck: Communications for Nonprofits

Sarah Durham

Sarah Durham is the president of Big Duck, a communications firm that specializes in nonprofit organizations. She is the author of the book, “Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money Through Smart Communications.” Order her book on

How would you describe your life’s work?
My ongoing career goal is to help nonprofits communicate more effectively so they can have a better shot at advancing or achieving their missions. I’m also a mother, partner, friend, quilter, dog owner. My life’s work is doing whatever I do thoughtfully and passionately.

Why does it matter?

My father died of cancer when I was in my 20s, which underscored for me how finite time and good health both are. I don’t want to squander the time I’ve got, or fritter my life away at things that don’t really matter to me. So many nonprofits inadvertently waste time and resources by not communicating clearly and effectively. It’s easy to live life with blinders on. I want to take them off.

How did you come to do this work?

I grew up with two parents in advertising, and marketing and design in my blood. Using creative skills to help nonprofits just clicked into place for me.

What would you say is your most significant achievement in the past two years?

Probably being invited to participate in some work with the White House around digital strategy was the biggest professional thrill I’ve had recently.

What’s next for you?

Going deeper into organizational development and alignment work for nonprofits. I want to do more work helping nonprofits communicate wisely on the inside so they can communicate better with external audiences too.

How do you want to be remembered?

As a force for good!