How can you engage your community in your brand?
Why is it important to center your community in shaping and representing your organization’s brand? Ally Dommu, director of strategy, talks with Farra Trompeter, co-director, about the value and practices of community-informed branding.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner at Big Duck. So, over the past few years, we’ve been thinking and talking a lot at Big Duck about inclusive branding. “How do you really engage and reflect your community and your brand?” And today we’re going to ask and answer that very question. Many of you may recognize Ally Dommu. She’s a regular guest on this podcast, and she recently hosted a great conversation with Key Jackson, episode 112 if you’re paying attention, on how you can facilitate inclusive conversations, and we’re excited to have her back as a guest.
Farra Trompeter: As Big Duck’s director of strategy, Ally, who uses she/her pronouns, leads our team of strategists who conduct research, facilitate group discussions, and create tailored mission-driven communications and branding strategies. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ally for nine years, and before she joined our team, she worked at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, where she managed communications and fundraising efforts to advance safety and justice for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence. Her experience working in the nonprofit world and passion for progressive causes inspired Ally to pursue her Masters in Nonprofit Management from the New School. And, Ally is also a member-owner and a member of our board of directors. Ally, welcome back to the show.
Ally Dommu: Thank you, Farra. Always lovely to be with you on the podcast.
Farra Trompeter: So Ally, you recently wrote a blog on this very topic of how you can engage your community and your brand, and we’ll link to that in the show notes. I just want to use that post as a jumping-off point. One of the first things you note in that post is that “to make sure your organization’s voice resonates with your community, you need to think through their role in shaping and representing your brand.” So, zooming all the way out, can you share why this topic is important?
Ally Dommu: Yeah, absolutely. Well nonprofits, of course, have to build strong relationships with a whole lot of folks, right? Program participants, clients, people impacted by the problem that the organization’s trying to solve, staff, board volunteers, activists, donors, partners. Like the list goes on. All of these people matter to advance a nonprofit mission. So, all of these groups make up a nonprofit’s community and therefore should be considered when working on the brand of a nonprofit organization. So, there are just a lot of important questions to ask when thinking about building a brand, “Who is involved now? Who needs to be involved in the future to advance your nonprofit’s mission? Who is most impacted by the work of your organization? Where is their voice in shaping how you present yourself as a nonprofit to the world with your brand?” and I think it’s really helpful to think of this phrase, “Nothing about us without us.”
Ally Dommu: I think that’s really getting at the core of this question of why community-informed branding matters. This is a phrase that’s been around for hundreds of years. It gained traction in social justice circles in the 1990s, specifically in the disability rights movement, specifically coined by a writer and activist named James Charlton who wrote a book with the same title. It’s the premise on this idea that people with disabilities know what’s best for them. So, could we apply this to nonprofit branding, “Nothing about us without us.” Community-informed branding. That’s what that’s about. If you’re an organization that’s focused on ending breast cancer, then nothing should be communicated about people impacted by breast cancer without the inclusion of people living with breast cancer. So we must involve the community most impacted by the work of the organization in how the organization presents itself to the world.
Farra Trompeter: Makes a lot of sense. Now, we’ve had several other conversations on this podcast, including one Sarah Durham, our founder, did with Michelle Shireen Muri about where your community is in your communications. And I just want to sort of bring this down a level. What does it look like when we apply this idea of community-informed branding? Can you describe the impact of what happens when a nonprofit actually centers their community in their brand?
Ally Dommu: Yeah. Just want to take a step back and just kind of define thinking about what branding means in this context. So, a nonprofit’s brand is the cumulative perceptions, like, what people think and what people feel about your nonprofit organization. So, while your nonprofit can’t control what people think and feel, you can intentionally shape your brand–shape those perceptions through really dedicated strategy through your brand identity, through the messages you use, the stories you share, the images, the designs you use and leverage in your day-to-day communications. So, when community members that are impacted by the work of an organization are thoughtfully involved in the brand, the impact is that the community can see themselves in the brand. They feel welcomed, they feel respected, they feel represented by the brand of the organization. So, the brand feels like it’s speaking with them, not speaking about them or in a way that is othering. Hence building trust with that community. So brands that center their community are much more likely to create stronger and more lasting connections that are based on trust, that inspire action, and, ultimately, advance the mission.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I hear two things in what you’re saying. First, there is, in shaping the brand and really being intentional about our perception, we need to sort of hear from the community to see “What is their perception of us now? Does that need to change? Can we authentically represent the version of ourselves that they see?” But then there’s the experience of the brand. It’s not just the logo we choose, the name we have, our tagline, the messages we use, but the day-to-day experience people have when they interact with you. Are you in fact reflecting and reinforcing that? Let’s take it on the flip side, what can go wrong, or what are the risks if an organization does not consider their community when developing their brand, their strategy, their assets, or apply it to the experience of their brand across those communications channels?
Ally Dommu: So, the flip side is, first of all, thinking about building a nonprofit brand or going through a rebrand that those that are involved in that process, those nonprofit communicators, those leaders spend a whole lot of time and resources building brands that maybe they think are effective, but they might not align with what will resonate or represent their community. So, that could put up, you know, barriers with community members and erode trust and ultimately inhibit action towards the mission. And, in the worst case, brands can be built that actually can cause harm to community members.
Ally Dommu: Without the involvement of community voices in the brand, there’s a risk that nonprofits reinforce harmful narratives, inequitable narratives that dehumanize community members, that don’t respect their dignity and agency. We talk a lot at Big Duck about saviorism and the problem and the problematic narratives of saviorism. Positioning the organization as, you know, the sole hero of the story or telling the story of community members’ experiences that does not align with their worldview, with their experience, and is otherizing. So, those two things, I think – just, one, is it runs the risk of being ineffective. Like, it doesn’t actually resonate, and the second is that it actually dehumanizes or stigmatizes the community even further.
Farra Trompeter: So I’m guessing, or maybe hoping, that everyone out there listening is shaking their heads and saying, “Yeah, we don’t want to do that. We want to do something that’s community-informed, we don’t want to cause harm,” and maybe even some of our listeners out there are already doing that. I’m sure many of you are, and some other folks may be wondering, “How can I do it better?” What are some actual ways organizations can actually inform this, can do community-informed branding that can actually engage their communities in their brand?
Ally Dommu: The very first place to start, let’s say you’re at a nonprofit and you’re taking a step back, really looking intentionally at your brand and thinking like, “How do we involve and center our community in this brand? How do we make sure our community shows up in the way that we’re talking and writing and designing about ourselves,” is by listening. And that is a huge part of the work that I get to do every day at Big Duck, as a strategist, and encourage our clients to do as well. Simply talking to your community members, that’s the best place to start. So, that could look like individual calls or group discussions and really asking your community, like, “What are your perceptions of the organization now? What’s working about the brand? What’s not working?”
Ally Dommu: There’s a lot of different research methods that you could draw from, and really just hearing, like, “Do you see yourself, you know, in this brand? What’s working about this? Are these messages resonating? What are the barriers with this brand right now?” Maybe it’s, you know, the language that you’re using, maybe it’s the imagery that you’re using, maybe it’s some of the messages that you’re using, but first, just pausing and spending some time to listen and doing that community-based research.
Ally Dommu: And then, the next more tangible step is if you are taking action to change your brand, maybe you’re working on key messages or you’re changing the name of your organization, maybe you’re doing a website overhaul to make it more accessible, is that you include community members in that process itself. So, let’s say you have a working group involved in overhauling your organization’s messaging. What’s the representation of the community in that group? Maybe you are forming an official working group. Can you invite community members to be a part of it or potentially invite them to take some time to provide input to a draft of an idea? Maybe you have a few options that you’re considering for a logo. So, building in that time to include community voices in the process of brand development. Those are a couple things that first come to mind.
Farra Trompeter: Great. Now, you made a point in your post that I just want to make sure we discuss and really leave folks some time to reflect on, which is that before you start executing some of the things you just listed to involve your community, you need to first start by establishing new practices or reviewing existing ones to make sure that you’re respecting and valuing the community’s time and labor. What are some of the practices that organizations should put into place?
Ally Dommu: Yes. Before you jump into involving your community in the brand, make sure you have a couple practices in place so that you are really focusing on respecting and valuing their time and labor, right? Working on a brand, representing a brand, providing input, that’s all a lot of work and labor, and you want to make sure that you are fairly and equitably compensating your community for that work. So the two big things I would say to focus on are your practices around consent and then your practices around compensation. So, for consent, it’s important to be mindful about how you ask folks to contribute, ensuring that you express that community members have every right to say no in this process. So develop some defined rules and workflows to ensure that the stories you’re telling about your community members are done so ethically. So you can ask folks to share their experience to come forward and look for enthusiastic consent. That is something that Nel Taylor, who I’ve quoted in my post, had shared and recommended.
Ally Dommu: So, everyone should always have the opportunity to review and approve their contributions and how their story is being portrayed before they are finalized. So, if you are asking a community member to provide input to a story that’s being written about them, how do you make sure that they have the power to, first, consent to that story being shared, and then, once it’s developed, whether they’re writing it and they’re the lead author or they’re contributing and editing, that they have, like, that final voice and say. They have consent over the fact that it’s being published. And even once it’s published, community members have the right and the ability to be able to say, “You know what, that’s not a story that I want public anymore. I’d like that to be taken down.” So, all those options.
Ally Dommu: So, that’s consent, and then the second is compensation. So, when asking folks to participate in your branding efforts or your communications campaigns, consider how to compensate them for their time. So, obviously unpaid and underpaid labor, it’s a huge equity issue in the nonprofit sector, so having some practices in place to compensate those who share their time and expertise, that is huge in terms of changing the status quo. So, that might look like having a flat fee or an amount that you pay a community member for contributing in an interview, for example. You have that be a default. Certainly, folks can say, “I don’t need that,” or, “I choose not to take that money,” but that by doing so and having that practice in place, you are showing that you value and honor and respect the contributions of your community.
Farra Trompeter: I love both those ideas, obviously, consent and compensation. I think we could take those to a lot of other conversations, but just adding on compensation, other places we’ve recommended people compensate is if you ask a community member to fill out a survey. Even if it’s just five or 10 minutes of their time, that is their time, that is value that you should assign worth to that. We’ve also, I think, recommended that folks just talk to community members and say, “What would feel meaningful to you? What can we do for you that would feel meaningful for you to participate in this?” And then again, if they’re not sure, offer ideas, but before you automatically assume a gift card to some retailer is the way to go, have a conversation with them and ask them what would be meaningful. Well, Ally, thank you so much. Before we sign off, anything else you want to share?
Ally Dommu: I think as a final, simple question, so just, maybe a place to start, because this could all feel like a lot, like, how do you begin this process, is just asking when you’re working on brand-building efforts, “Where is our community in this? Where does our community show up in this work?” And that prompts a starting point. Maybe your community doesn’t show up, or maybe your community has shown up, let’s say, in this messaging, but have you authentically involved them in the process? So that’s just the question, I think, as a starting point, and it could lead to all these other practices and more intentional, comprehensive ways of involving your community and your brand going forward.
Farra Trompeter: Well, thank you, Ally. If you are interested in reading more of Ally’s ideas or other great thinking from our team about your brand and your community, head over to bigduck.com/insights, we’ve got lots of other blogs and podcasts on this topic. If you’re an organization that’s out there and is practicing community-informed branding, we’d love to hear. We’re always looking for more stories to share. You can drop us a note at [email protected], or if you’re out there and you want some help building a brand that engages your community, feel free to reach out to us as well. Again, that’s [email protected]. Thanks so much, everyone. Have a great day.