The Potential and Perils of Branding in an International NGO

“But we’re not selling sugar water,” grumbles the child rights specialist at the back of the room with a furrow in his brow.

This was not an auspicious start to my session on branding with one of the largest international relief and development agencies. His point was well taken however. As the charitable sector professionalizes and becomes an industry unto itself, it is hiring people and adopting practices from the for-profit sector. Both the people and the practices sometimes have a hard time finding a home in growing organizations that have gotten where they are sometimes by the sheer passion of their convictions and the seat of their pants.

While the process of developing a brand within an international NGO is fraught with perils, the end product of having a trusted global brand is well worth the effort. Brand is not sugar-coating. Brand is a deep understanding of the essence of an organization, married with the capacity to articulate and deliver that essence to a wide variety of audiences with integrity and consistency.

Ann Bradford of Lyric Inc, a Seattle-based brand strategy consultancy, offers the following definition:

Brand is an emotional vessel that fills with meaning over time. It expresses the soul of the organization at every touch point. It lives in people’s hearts and minds as a sum of associations attached to your products, services and people.

A well articulated brand helps you get clear about your priorities, your promise, what makes you unique and how you can deliver with passion through every employee at every touch point. Consistency every day across the whole of your organization is essential to building a trusted brand. Trust is built when people can count on you because they know what to expect and you fulfill those expectations through words and actions that line up.

The Potential

In every process and human endeavor, there are things to gain and things to lose. A good brand process starts by gathering the key stakeholders together to come to grips with both ends of the equation. Drawing a multi-national organization together to attain fierce focus is a complex and demanding task. But not impossible. And the rewards are great.


The most obvious gain, particularly for a fundraising entity in a smaller market, is the connection to something much bigger in scope and scale. This is often the case in the Canadian market for international NGOs where the largest entity is usually in the US or Europe. Quoting just Canadian entity statistics on fundraising or program scale simply doesn’t tell the whole story.


Nor does it take advantage of size and longevity as factors in building credibility and trust, which are critical for donor acquisition and retention. To be able to say that you’re part of an existing international organization with its years of expertise and on-the-ground presence in numerous countries pulls better than being a smaller, single entity working on its own.

Building Trust

A great brand cannot be copied because it is driven out of the heart of an organization. It is the sum of a thousand small impressions driven by a singular vision. The strategic process of developing the brand within an organization results in focus, both operationally and from a marketing and messaging perspective. And focus leads to trust as donors and clients/communities see words and actions that line up time and again.

An important part of brand is also coming to understand and articulate an organization’s distinctiveness in the marketplace. It is more important now than ever as the number of international NGOs grows each year. Understanding your organization’s distinct offering helps attract and lead you to the donors who will be most willing to give of their time, talent, treasure and influence. Being clear and distinct in a crowded marketplace also serves to build trust and to protect the organization from regularly occurring scandals within the industry.

Given the intangible nature of the exchange between a donor and an international NGO, knowing that an organization is reliable and credible is a critical success factor in attracting and retaining donors. The elements of trust obviously have to exist outside of the brand effort, but building your brand on top of a solid foundation of trust will lead to a strong brand. And a strong brand communicates and reinforces a deep and compelling sense of trust.


Great brands develop consistency over time and across borders. Consistency in operations or programming and messaging derives from focus and builds trust. Nathalie Laidler-Kylander, a researcher at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, has been looking into the factors that promote brand equity in the nonprofit world. Brand equity is well understood in the for-profit world. It is what allows Starbucks to make a 70% profit on a cup of coffee. Because NGOs are just now adopting brand strategies, it is less understood in this realm. In a study of five international NGOS, she posits that while consistency may not be a critical variable in the for-profit world, due to the complexity of international NGOs …

 … consistency appears to be very important … This complexity arises from the greater number of brand audiences and the existence of both upstream and downstream activities … The greater relative importance of consistency for international nonprofit brand equity, may stem in part from this greater complexity.[1]

 The need for consistency is also due to the fact that we have become a global society through the use of the Internet, donors who travel widely, government funding agencies and the international media. A lack of consistency in programming or messaging will show up through any one of these avenues and undercut credibility and trust.

Also adding to the complexity is that some international NGOs have a religious base. Understanding the faith-related roots and then coming to an agreement on how that effects both programming and messaging on a global level is challenging but critical, particularly when a statement on one country’s website could lead to misunderstandings or worse in another country.

Branding, as an organizational construct, drives toward focus, clarity and consistency. It is not a simplistic dumbing down of the message. Rather, it is a sophisticated methodology to understand essence and communicate that in increasingly engaging, accessible and emotive ways to the people you need to speak to the loudest.

Delivery on the Promise

Given the complexity of international NGOs working cross-culturally in multitudes of countries, the organizational construct and internal coherence that a good brand offers is a critical piece for delivering on promises made—both to donors and to communities or clients. There are complexities on both ends of the spectrum in terms of delivering on a promise. Brand drives toward focus and clarity. It provides the North Star for alignment of all the entities so that what you say is what you do, and that shows up wherever and whenever someone comes into contact with your organization.

Fundraisers will argue that their audiences are distinct and program people will argue that their communities or clients are distinct. They are not wrong, but they are not looking high-level enough. At a certain point, there has to be a clearly articulated, engaging focus to your global work that links the two together. Otherwise, efforts to market and efforts to develop programs will exist in different spheres. Organizations that can get their fundraising and program people working together and inextricably linked in relationships of trust and respect will lead the way to the next level of efficiency and effectiveness in the future.

Internal Branding

The process is as important as the outcome. This became clear to me almost immediately as I watched various stakeholder groups grapple with the issues that need to be worked through on the way to discovering an organization’s essence. Done right, it’s an exciting, collaborative and energizing process that reinforces the outcome by drawing out the best of the organization’s people and thinking.

The concept of branding is going to resonate most with marketers, fundraisers and communications staff, but beware of limiting your involvement just to those groups. Great brands involve the whole of the organization and are not built overnight. Take the time and make the effort to engage key stakeholders from all the various sectors in all the various regions and offices.  As you go through surveys and interviews, you will find an exciting wealth of organizational knowledge and passion.

In the early stages of the process, gather as much information and input from as many stakeholders as possible. This serves the purpose both of drawing out expertise and knowledge, as well as bringing people into the process. Surveys and interviews are also opportunities to do brand education and thus to build buy-in.  As the process moves along however, you will need to work with a smaller stakeholder group that has more specific brand expertise and that has reference to decision-making authority. Difficult decisions will need to be made or else the brand work will spin in endless circles.

The Pitfalls

All the books on brand say this right off: the critical success factor is having the CEO own and drive the brand. This is why. You need a strong, visionary and strategic leader to make brand happen especially within the complex structure of a multi-national NGO, wherein live various breeds of wild things.

Having worked in depth in one international NGO and trolled among others now as a consultant, I see some recurring themes.

 “But we already have a logo”

You can say as much as you like that the brand is more than just the logo and people will nod knowingly. But in reality, most people stop at the visual. I saw that the Saskatchewan government got panned for spending $1 million on a logo. People see a simple graphic and think that’s it. How hard can that be? Brand, as we have seen above, is a full body organizational construct; an embodiment of overall strategy that lives and breathes at every touch point in the organization, from the voice that greets you on the phone to the policy paper that goes to the G8 conference – and everywhere else in between. $1 million for that was a deal. The logo is just the tip of the iceberg.


The other telling symptom of an undervalued and misunderstood brand is its place in overall strategy. I usually find references to brand buried on page 16 or beyond. It is most often found snuggled up to the corporate identity standards, along with some words about how the organization should do more with it.

“You don’t understand my donors”

This statement is symptomatic of confusion between strategy and tactics, particularly as you are trying to identify the essence of an organization. Brand work starts with positioning—identifying the essence of the organization that doesn’t change no matter who you talk to. This positioning will become your point of alignment for all the entities in the organization to assure delivery on the promise. This is particularly important for a large (or even a small), gangly international organization with both community/client and donor constituencies.

It is only natural that each entity, particularly those who are focused on fundraising, is going to consider their donors to be the most important. Positioning needs to include everyone’s donor research and information, but at the highest level, cannot be driven by any one entity. Once the global positioning is established, it will then be up to each fundraising entity to do the research and craft their engaging messages to their distinct audiences from that starting point and with alignment.

Rather than limiting creativity in messaging to their donor audiences (the base fear lurking in the heart of every marketer or fundraiser), a clearly articulated brand aligns and then frees writers and designers to focus on crafting creative that sticks with their unique donor segments, rather than having to think through what the organization is all about in the first place.

“But we aren’t selling sugar water”

Back to the beginning. This statement is evidence of a limited view of branding. We thought at first that we should change the name of the initiative to “Our Identity” or some such thing that would go down easier, but in the end decided against that. Rather, we set to work to re-brand the concept of brand in the organization. Once people begin to understand the scope and depth of the brand work, their comfort levels rise.

There is always a gorilla in the room

Sometimes more than one. It usually takes the form of the largest fundraising entity (even in nonprofits, money tends to speak loudest of all), and it can perceive that it has the most to lose by having to collaborate with smaller entities. Or it may be unwilling to give up some aspects of naming or language or even a URL for the greater good. They may see that they have an effective brand in their market, thank you very much. As mentioned earlier, the point however is to be lined up across the whole of the organization in order to deliver on promises made both to donors and communities or clients. One office or entity is not an island in making that happen.


The road to a trusted global brand is neither straight nor smooth, but it is well worth the effort. The most compelling reason for an international NGO to develop their brand is the opportunity it provides for breaking people out of their silos to work together.  While acknowledging tensions, collaboration is essential:

Great outcomes require vision, commitment, and collaboration. Collaboration is not consensus or compromise. It evolves from a thoughtful and genuine focus on problem solving, generating an interdependent, connected approach.[2]

There is tremendous depth and richness to be found throughout the process and especially in the outcome. Dive in!

[1] Nathalie Laidler-Kylander, “Brand Equity in International Nonprofit Organizations: A System Dynamics Approach,” (April 2007)

[2] Alina Wheeler, Designing Brand Identity: A Complete Guide to Creating, Building and Maintaining Strong Brands, second edition (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New Jersey, 2006): 76