May 31, 2022

Why Branding a Foundation is Different from Branding a Nonprofit

chandler robertson digital strategist

Chandler Robertson


Articles & Insights

In many conversations, nonprofit charities and foundations get categorized together – we’ve all heard the term “mission-based organizations.” But when it comes to building a brand strategy, how much do the two distinct types of organizations have in common? 

A well defined brand sets the strategic foundation for any organization’s communications. For-profit businesses use branding as the groundwork to build a connection with potential customers. Nonprofit charities that rely on donations use the same principles to drive community action and donations. But that’s not always the goal of a mission-based organization. 

So how should an organization like an endowed foundation use their brand? We looked at three core components of brand strategy to identify the ways that foundations’ brands should set themselves apart from nonprofits’.

What Should a Foundation’s Mission Statement Accomplish? 

A mission statement should succinctly summarize what it is that an organization sets out to do each day. It should succinctly describe the what and the why of the work. A nonprofit’s mission statement should be focused on communicating the services it provides, to whom, and what the intended outcomes are. For most nonprofits, this is the jumping off point for building a unique position — a foundation’s mission statement might not be as easy to define. 

Foundations exist to provide funding, so the easy route would be to base your mission statement entirely around what and who you provide funding for. But going a step deeper and starting to draw out the why in your mission is crucial for building a brand with enough substance to inspire both internal and external stakeholders. 

A good foundation mission statement should consider the organization’s approach, ethos, roots, and how its existence moves the causes it supports forward. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to fit all that information into a simple and inspiring statement. That’s why it’s so important to consider every piece of your mission statement closely, and decide what’s really central to your organization. They may seem like small choices, but, for example, deciding whether you “partner with” or “provide support to” those you work with is a critical distinction in how you approach your work.

By incorporating more than the primary action (providing financial support) the organization performs, the mission can better inform the actions the organization takes, and better position the organization to its audiences. 

The last thing to remember about writing a good mission statement; keep it easy to comprehend. Bloating a mission statement with everything about the organization is a really easy way to create a lot of confusion, which is the opposite of what brand positioning should do. Limit yourself to just one or two sentences, so that you’re forced to really distill what it is that you do. 

What Should a Foundation’s Vision Statement Accomplish

The difference between a mission and a vision statement can seem a little murky at first, but the easiest way to think about it is to compare the daily to the lifelong. A mission statement should clearly state what the organization does every day, how, and why. A vision statement should be a reflection of what the organization’s ultimate goal is — “ultimate” meaning “when we reach this point, we’ll have finished our work.”

Vision statements are one area of brand strategy where nonprofits and foundations can take a very similar approach. Because a vision statement should imagine the world in a state where the change has been made, there’s less pressure to articulate the action steps that were taken by the organization to get there. A foundation’s vision statement doesn’t necessarily need to differentiate between providing services and providing funding the same way that a mission statement should.

Think big with your vision, but not unachievable. In branding, we like to refer to visions as “improbable, not impossible.” Vision pairs so well with the mission because it can pull people out of their day to day job to instead focus on the big picture.

What Should a Foundation’s Brand Values Accomplish 

Brand values are an essential piece of a modern brand in any sector, but especially for mission-based organizations. Like mission and vision, brand values give the organization something to check their decisions against — and constantly making decisions that reflect those values, gives external stakeholders a stronger understanding of what the organization really does and why. But unlike mission and vision, these things shouldn’t have anything to do with what you do. Brand values are all about how you do things, and the behaviors and attitudes you emphasize. Like with a vision statement, there are only small distinctions between creating a set of values for a foundation or a nonprofit.

When it comes to values, foundations can have a distinct advantage — quite often, there’s an individual founder or benefactor who established the organization, and whose original founding act drives what the organization does. And, like everyone, they have their own set of values that you can look to when starting to establish the organization.

Branding exercises are often about humanizing the organization, so starting with a human in mind is a helpful tool for narrowing down what the core values of an organization are. This doesn’t mean that the individual (or family) behind the foundation should serve as a one to one stand in for the brand, but considering what they value personally, and how those values play into the origin of the foundation can give you a huge leg up. 

Like the mission statement (and any brand element, really), it’s important to keep your values succinct and easy to remember. Good brands don’t try to showcase everything that could possibly be applicable to the organization. Instead, they create hierarchy, priorities, and clarify the organization’s reason for being, rather than weigh it down.

the brand guide we created for the arthur vining davis foundations presents brand values simply

Brand values should be simple and informative, not overwhelming. We created a simple set of guiding principles for Arthur Vining Davis Foundations rooted in their history and work.

Create a Brand That Reflects Your Organization

While guidelines like this can help foundations find themselves in a crowded mission-based space, there is no substitute for doing the research, defining the strategy and creating a brand that fits your organizational needs. Each brand is different, and establishing components that aren’t true to the organization itself will only create more confusion.

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