How to engage your community in your brand
Your nonprofit’s brand gives your existing and potential community signals about why to choose you (or not to choose you) as a place to channel their values. To make sure your organization’s voice resonates with your community, it’s essential to think through their role in shaping and representing your brand.
Nonprofits must build strong relationships with program participants, clients, staff, board, volunteers, activists, donors, partners, and more to advance their missions. All of these groups make up a nonprofit’s community, and therefore should be considered when working on the brand. Community members should feel welcomed, respected, and represented by your brand. The brand should feel like it’s speaking with them in a respectful dialogue, not speaking about or at them. Brands that center their community are much more likely to create stronger and more lasting connections to inspire action and achieve their mission.
Without a community-informed brand, nonprofit leaders risk spending valuable time and resources building brands that they think are effective, but that may not align with what will resonate with or represent their community. This can put up walls with community members and erode trust.
Ways to engage community members in the brand
Involving your community in your brand can take many forms. Here are four actions you can take to involve your community in your brand:
- Listen first. Talking to your community members is a great place to start. Schedule some individual calls, host some group discussions, and ask for input about their current perceptions of the organization, what is working, and what is not with your current brand. Learn more about how to assess whether interviews, surveys, or focus groups are the best method to listen to and learn from your community.
- Ask to participate in the brand-building process: If you are working on an organizational rebrand (e.g. changing your name, visual identity, messaging, website overhaul), including your community members in the process is a great step towards ensuring that the outcomes hit the mark. If you are forming a working group, invite community members to be a part of it, or take the time to invite their input to drafts before they are finalized and rolled out.
- Invite to make contributions to your content: Review your content from the past month and examine whose voices were represented. The blogs, articles, social media posts, emails, and reports that you produce all contribute to your organization’s brand. Including the voices of your community members in your content is a relatively straightforward, impactful way to make sure your brand reflects the community. Make contributing both easy and meaningful. Start by asking community members how they would prefer to contribute (e.g. writing a blog post from scratch, contributing a quote or photograph, serving as a spokesperson, participating in an Instagram live, etc.), and provide support along the way (tips, resources, examples) so the process is smooth and manageable for them.
- Equip them to spread the word: The community closest to your mission are your organization’s most important ambassadors. Equip them with tools to encourage and facilitate sharing about your nonprofit. We’re seeing more nonprofits go digital with their brand guides, and even providing a public link so that your community members can access logo files, templates, and messaging. Include specific asks for people to share your campaigns across their networks, and supply them with easy-to-share assets like pre-written emails and social posts. Check out some examples of how nonprofits are democratizing their brands in my colleague Claire Taylor Hansen’s post.
Ways to respect the contributions from community members
Before you jump into involving your community, establish new practices (or review existing ones) to ensure you are respecting and valuing their time and labor.
- Consent: First, be mindful about how you ask folks to contribute, ensuring that you express that saying ‘no’ is a perfectly acceptable answer. Develop defined rules and workflows to ensure that the stories you’re telling about your community members are done so ethically. As Nel Taylor shared in their blog post, Seven ways to tell stories ethically: The journey from exploited program participant to empowered storyteller, “Ask folx who would like to share their experience to come forward — and look for enthusiastic consent.” Nel also advised that nonprofits always ask for permission when sharing or capturing anything personal about a community member, as well as including them in the editing process. Everyone should always have the opportunity to review and approve their contributions and how their story is being portrayed before they are finalized.
- Compensation: When asking folks to participate in your branding efforts, consider how to compensate them for their time. Unpaid and underpaid labor is a huge equity issue in the nonprofit sector, and having practices in place to compensate those who share their time and expertise is an important step in changing the status quo. Let’s say you are asking a program participant to share their ideas about your brand in a 30-minute interview. Participants in a recent exchange on the Community-Centric Fundraising Slack channel weighed in and suggested $25 being more or less standard for a 30-minute interview. In addition, ask participants what they would find meaningful in terms of how much to be paid for their participation or give them the option to decline compensation or request something else. You could also reference a living wage calculator to guide you.
- Appreciation: Finally, take the time to thank your community members for their contributions to your brand. Personal thank you notes and public acknowledgments of their involvement send a message to those individuals—and your community at large— that you value their contributions, and they are not taken for granted.
Engaging your community meaningfully in your branding efforts takes intention and commitment. It can also be a slower process than if a brand is built and managed by just a few staff. A brand that emerges from the community is one that your organization can confidently share with integrity, knowing that what you are communicating authentically aligns with the ideas, experiences, and beliefs of those closest to your mission.