Blog / Nonprofits

We Listen Before We Create: How Learning Relates to Designing a Brand

by Jeff Terpstra
We Listen Before We Create: How Learning Relates to Designing a Brand

“If we aren’t growing, we’re dead.”

I have come to believe in this statement. Okay, well, maybe if we aren’t growing we may still be breathing. But I think it is safe to say that if we don’t grow our work, we’ll die.

For the first 10 years of my career, after graduating from college, I settled in on all that I had learned from my professors. I felt that six years of my life invested at a university were enough. I should be good for most of the rest of my life, I thought. I had lost my curiosity, my love of learning.

This all changed one day when a designer friend came through my office door with a gift in his hand. He handed me a book written by David Ogilvy, titled Ogilvy on Advertising. My world opened up. David taught me that I must always learn and conduct proper research before I create. I must gain a deep understanding of my client and the change they bring to the world. This freed me as a designer.

It can be hard to find opportunities to learn about or while we are at work. Nonprofits are often told by funders and other stakeholders to grow their work, to “scale” their programs and serve more people. But they are not always given the time and support to learn about strategies for doing the work, to learn about what others are doing, and to evaluate and learn from the programs and initiatives they are already running. That may be especially true for nonprofit communications professionals.

While I am president of a for-profit company, Scott Allen Creative, most of our clients are nonprofits. Our agency’s tagline is “Your passion is our inspiration,” and our team finds joy in creating meaningful brands for our nonprofit clients. As we design strategies and create new products, we always remember that we are stewards of our client’s brand. We hold this responsibility as if it were a treasure in our hands. We represent them and proclaim their story to the world.

That means we are in a position to see how nonprofits struggle with learning about effective communications strategies. And it makes it that much more important that we learn from the nonprofits we work for and their closest stakeholders in order to create and launch those strategies.

Why Nonprofits Struggle with Marketing and Communications

I have talked to many nonprofits who say to me, “We are the best-kept secret,” or, “We don’t have a lot of brand awareness in our community even though we have been around for decades.” And then I ask them, “What percentage of your budget is dedicated to branding and marketing?” For many of them, they admit that they have very little budgeted and for some, none at all.

There are three legs of a nonprofit stool.

Each nonprofit consists of three basic areas:

  1. Mission (the reason you exist, the services you provide),
  2. Management (administration and operations), and
  3. Marketing (branding and engaging others).

A sign of a healthy nonprofit is one that constantly invests in all three legs. If one leg is weak it threatens the life of the nonprofit.

Invest in your three legs: Mission, Management, Marketing

So why is it that some nonprofits and funders aren’t investing in this leg? Here are three reasons:

  1. Many nonprofit funders (major donors and foundations) insist their donation go towards the mission. Some occasionally invest in management, but fewer still designate their gifts in the third leg of marketing. In fact, a Google dive revealed thousands of blogs spouting the importance of nonprofit marketing — and many examples of successful campaigns — but it turned up no data at all on how many foundations are funding nonprofit communications efforts.
  2. The nonprofit struggles with its brand message. It takes a lot of effort to discover that powerful brand message that inspires others to join your cause. The staff may have also tried marketing and it hasn’t been very effective. Discouraged, they feel an ongoing investment in marketing just isn’t worth it.
  3. Charity Navigator recommends that Mission should be 65–80% of the overall budget, with the Administration (management) limited to 20–25%. For many financial pie charts, there isn’t even a slice attributed to “Marketing.” And knowing that marketing needs to be placed within the Management category, it’s difficult to think of attributing even 3–5% of the budget on marketing.

Nonprofits don’t have the marketing budgets that corporations have and sometimes it can take 1–3 years for our clients to find funding for our services. Executive leadership, the board of directors, and development team all need to agree that branding and marketing are worth the investment.

Why should nonprofits invest in their brand?

One example happened just a couple months ago when our designers were presenting logo concepts via video conference with a client from Phoenix, Arizona. This client is a summer camp for people with disabilities. The executive director is deeply passionate about bringing joy and encouragement to all her campers. She embodies the heart of the organization and its mission. When she began to view the logo designs on her computer screen she began to cry. For her, the logos were an artistic and beautiful expression of her life’s calling. She saw her heart reflected in those designs.

Those are the moments we live for.

“We do not need to create a story; we need to discover the story that is already there.”

But how did this moment come about? How were the designers able to “get it right” and envision a design that truly reflected the heart of the organization?

The key is that we must listen before we create. We must put aside all that we know and be inspired by a fresh, firsthand look into our client’s stories. As a nonprofit communications professional, or anyone trying to tell the story of an organization in a way that will resonate and be meaningful, listening is the most important way you can learn.

Search for the heart of your organization. Explore as if you are searching for that golden thread of an idea that will lead the brand. And know that, like searching for gold, it’s not always an easy journey. It takes work.

We do not need to create a story; we need to discover the story that is already there.

How do we discover a brand story?

A local nonprofit was losing donor support in an alarming way. In the past three months alone they had lost two donors, each of whom had previously donated over $375,000 per year. The nonprofit development team intuitively felt that their brand story was weak and had something to do with their loss of donors. So they hired us to create their brand messages. Their financial support was on the line, so we needed to get it right.

I told them that I wanted to conduct one-on-one interviews with staff, donors, foundations, volunteers, and their clients. I wanted 3–4 interviews within each group. I felt that one-on-one interviews would be the best way to get at the heart of their brand story. Every nonprofit can ask these questions:

  • For staff and board members: Why have they invested their talents and time into the nonprofit, and what change do they seek to bring about in the world?
  • For clients: Discover their life journey, their struggles before they came to the nonprofit, how the nonprofit came alongside them to provide resources or relationships that were desperately needed, and finally what the resulting life transformation was. In every phase of their journey, seek to learn how their circumstances were impacted physically, spiritually, emotionally, and
  • For donors: Hear firsthand why a person (individual, foundation, or corporation) is motivated to give. What was their belief that compelled them to invest in this nonprofit cause?

You may ask, “Why spend the time with one-on-one interviews when it’s so much easier to do an electronic survey? Or wouldn’t it be more efficient to conduct a focus group?” Sometimes those methods of research are valuable and need to be utilized, but I have found that personal interviews are the best way to get at the heart of a nonprofit’s mission.

It’s through these interviews that you’re going to discover the stories that can lead your brand.

Think of it this way: if you want to talk to a friend about something personal and close to your heart, you wouldn’t do it in a large group or noisy setting. It’s easier to feel safe and connected in a private, quiet setting. Here you can talk about personal issues, both painful and joyful.

In a similar way, when we conduct interviews, we want the interviewee to be in a quiet place. Not influenced by the loud opinions of others.

Remember also that listening is not a passive activity. To be good listeners, we must quiet all the other voices in our brain. We give our total concentration so we can focus on what the other person is saying.

“Look for that story that really represents the heart of your mission. It will be both true to who you are, and resonate with your target audiences.”

What you’re looking for are key ideas that will become your brand messages. Look for that story that really represents the heart of your mission. It will be both true to who you are and resonate with your target audiences.

Inspire with your heart.

Your heart statement is your belief statement. It is the passion, the heart of the organization. This is where you can make a deep emotional connection. The heart statement has the power to attract others to join your cause. It is the core of why you exist.

Reflect for a moment on your closest friends. How does someone become part of our inner circle? Someone we trust with our soul? Those friends that are soul mates understand us. They share our values. And they join us in our life’s journey.

Now think of what most nonprofits tend to talk about first in their brand. We tend first to tell others about all that we are doing, our client services, and how great we are. While there is a place for those conversations, I want you to think first of all about the beliefs that motivate you to do what you do.

“We tend first to tell others about all that we are doing, our client services, and how great we are. While there is a place for those conversations, I want you to think first of all about the beliefs that motivate you to do what you do.”

The goal is to connect the heart of the organization with the heart of the donor.

All of us want to be part of something greater than ourselves. We want to identify with others who share our passion, who believe in what we believe.

This belief statement is what Simon Sinek describes as our “Why” in his book (and TED talk), Start with Why. He makes the case that every movement, every corporation, every nonprofit needs a belief statement to lead their brand.

When you lead your brand with your belief, you will inspire others to join you.

Ask yourself, what belief can lead my brand?

Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign was introduced in 1988. It is a beautiful example of a corporate belief statement. It is not about shoes. It’s about our passion for sport. And it even goes beyond sport and is a belief statement that applies to all of life. The profound beauty of that statement is that I can whisper to myself “just do it” as I am escorted into a boardroom to make a sales pitch to win a new account just as easily as I can use it to score the winning touchdown.

What belief statement can lead your brand? How can this statement truly express who you are and resonate with others who share in your dream?

Senior Neighbors, no longer alone.

When we create a brand message we must first gain a deep understanding of our client’s mission. The same should be true for anyone trying to create a brand message for their own organization.

Senior Neighbors serves seniors throughout Kent County, Mich., offering a place where seniors can enjoy meals, enrich their lives with new friendships, attend classes, or receive help with things like transportation to a doctor, home repairs, financial counseling, or medical check-ups.

When we began our work with Senior Neighbors, I had a meaningful conversation with the Executive Director, Bob Barnes. We began to discuss the circle of life. As we grow up, one by one, people are added to our lives. As we grow from childhood to adulthood, our world expands. After high school, we make new friends at college or work. Some of us get married, we may have children, and we get to meet new friends in social settings such as church, sports, or hobbies. The seasons of life pass and we enter retirement. Then, one by one, people are removed from our lives. Our children grow up and move out of state, we retire and lose connection with our coworkers. Friends move away and sometimes, a spouse passes away. Many seniors find themselves in a condo, apartment, or retirement home with few or no loved ones. They are terribly alone.

Loneliness can be one of the greatest tragedies of life. Worse than hunger or cold. As human beings, we were created to live in community with each other.

I wrote a belief statement that I felt expressed the essence of all that Senior Neighbors believes for seniors in our community: “No longer alone.”

Here’s what Bob Barnes, Executive Director of Senior Neighbors, has to say: “‘No Longer Alone’ is the one message that goes to the heart of what we do.” It really touches people. And that touches not just the seniors we serve, but our donors. After seeing a video with the brand theme, it really clearly emotionally touched our donor and compelled and motivated him to write us a very nice check.”

This statement also represents a deeply human experience that goes beyond all socioeconomic, religious, or racial differences. The desire to be in connection with other human beings is truly human experience that we all share.

No matter what part of our brand story we are telling, this must always hold true: we listen before we create.

Jeff Terpstra
Chief Visionary Officer, Scott Allen Creative
Jeff founded Scott Allen Creative to help corporate and non-profit clients develop meaningful brands.