5 min Read
February 12, 2018

The difference between your nonprofit’s personality and its organizational values

This April, I celebrated 11 years as a member of the Big Duck team (please feel free to send chocolate, orchids, sushi, or kittens). During that time, I’ve led dozens of webinars, workshops, and brandraising intensives—our process to set a nonprofit’s brand strategy and roadmap for change as part of developing a nonprofit’s voice. In those conversations, nonprofit leaders occasionally struggle with the difference between brand personality and organizational values, or unknowingly confusing one for the other, so let’s set the record straight.

Defining personality

Personality is your organization’s tone and style. It’s the overarching feeling you want people to associate with your organization. Personality is one of two essential ingredients (the other is positioning) in your brand strategy.

An organization’s personality statement is usually a short list of adjectives that are carefully selected through a collaborative process following some research about current perceptions, a review of your materials, and discussion of peer landscape. The final list should be authentically aspirational: true to who you are and who you want to be on your best days. Certain adjectives may sound great in the moment, but the actual experience of your organization runs contrary to that (for example, putting approachable on the list but having a phone system that takes 20 minutes to reach a real person). It’s important to strive for a personality you can actually create at all points of contact or it will feel inauthentic.

Because the intention of personality is to help writers and designers refine or create your brand identity and communications materials, you’ll want to land on words that will be useful when making decisions. For example, if you’ve ever worked with me or other Ducks, you may hear us lovingly push back on using the word innovative as a brand personality trait. I mean, can you really show what innovative looks like or sounds like? On the other hand, you can likely write language that feels powerful, pick a color palette that feels vibrant, and develop a tagline that makes you sound fierce.

Personality traits can be expressed across all sorts of communications channels and interactions. They can also be useful in creating your new logo, tagline, and materials as well as rewriting your public-facing mission statement or boilerplate. Typically, personality attributes aren’t shared publicly.

Clarifying values

While personality is a key component of a nonprofit’s brand strategy, it is different than your organization’s values.  

Values are the key beliefs and philosophies that guide your work internally and externally, and they are expressed in a values statement. Values motivate staff and board members and serve as a public declaration of what you want evident in, and reflected by, your programs and services. Articulating these values can engage those closest to you and also help set you apart.

So what about values? Everyone’s got them, but not all organizations have taken the time to codify them, let alone share them publicly. Once you’ve gone through a process to identify what values your team shares, you want to put them to good use. While you should use your brand personality for the language you craft to express your values, the values themselves can be shared externally and have many additional applications.

A clear set of values can:

  • Motivate staff to stay or join your team, inspire board members to volunteer, and excite donors to want to support your organization;
  • Inform decisions and direction related to key policies and programs;
  • Be used to hire and evaluate staff; and
  • Focus board discussions and strategic planning.

Some nonprofit organizations opt to share their values publicly, listed them on their website, annual report, on posters around the office, and more. They can be a great reminder of why one might want to belong to your organization. Your values statement can also be useful in a branding context as it can highlight what makes you different than other organizations in your space.

In short, personality is how you want to make others feel about you, and values are who you are and what you’re all about.


While it may seem understandable for a word like collaborative to show up on both lists, it’s an idea that’s better suited for values than for personality (in fact, it’s one of our values). Personality is about the impression we want someone to have of us, and values are reflective of the way we act or the attitudes we possess.

In a recent Brandraising Intensive, a client advocated for kind to be one of their personality traits. We pushed to understand why and uncovered that being kind was a universal practice their staff exhibited and a key differentiator from their peers. As we dug deeper, it was clear that kindness was a core value, but was not technically a personality trait. Aside from fitting more into how values are used, a word like kind is actually not useful for making decisions around creative or other communications work. Instead, we landed on using warm in their brand personality, which provides direction for color, an approach to imagery, and a feeling to convey in how they speak and write about their work.

Another example can be found with Auburn Seminary. Auburn’s personality is loving, entrepreneurial, courageous, multifaith, progressive, and respected, while their values are interdependence, truth-telling, wholeness, wisdom, and celebration. As you review Auburn’s written explanation of these values, you can see how the traits of being loving and courageous might have informed the sentence that elaborates on the value of celebration, “Even in the face of great challenges, we delight in the small steps that carry us forward.”

One last tip

I hope this article and the various links embedded lead to clarity and/or spark a healthy debate among your team. If you are in the New York City area on Wednesday, February 21, you can dive more deeply into developing your brand personality through this workshop I’ll be leading at the Foundation Center-New York.