The non-profit branding challenge

Actions speak louder than tax designations

At JXM, we’re a lot of things. Marketers. Business philosophers. Poets. Musicians. Coffee cake enthusiasts. We choose to define ourselves by these things because they’re positives: what we’re good at and what we enjoy. You’ll never hear us say that we’re not Olympic sprinters or that we’re not birdwatching enthusiasts… because what’s the point? We’d rather tell you about who we are and what we do, rather than focus on what isn’t relevant to us. 

It begs a simple question: what do non-profits stand to gain by telling us what they aren’t?

This idea of examining non-profit nomenclature stems from an idea Simon Sinek delivered in 2021. He proposed that instead of advertising themselves as “non-profit,” these organizations should rebrand as “for-impact.” So many of these associations have incredible missions and strong values, and care deeply about their impact on the world. However, when they classify themselves as a “non-profit,” they’re not doing justice to that mission. 

Non-profit is a tax designation, not a description of the organization. To that end, non-profits need to rebrand to embrace their purpose. Don’t lead with what you’re not. Instead, be bold about what you do.

A non-cow.
Semantics set the tone

On the surface, non-profit vs. for-impact is a semantic shift. Below the surface, however, there’s big-time psychology at work. Positive becomes negative. Internal becomes external. Feature becomes benefit. Much of the change comes from how people feel when they hear for-impact vs. non-profit. Their interest piques because the focus is on what the organization does, instead of what it’s not

Focusing on action opens up a new world of possibilities for organizations intent on making an impact. From a branding standpoint, there are more opportunities to align messaging with intent. There’s also a more direct connection between the organization’s efforts and real-world challenges. Perhaps most important, though, is the enhanced connection between these organizations and the people who support them. 

Non-profits survive on the charity and kindness of others. Whether it’s a donation of time or money, or access to resources and opportunities, non-profits depend on support. The success of the organization—measured by its ability to affect positive change in the world—stems from conveying those efforts to donors. Becoming a for-impact organization immediately strengthens those bonds because it insinuates that donations are “for impact,” not simply “non-profit.” It’s a message that practically sells itself

From a donor standpoint, semantics mean everything. Just ask yourself: would you rather donate money to a for-impact organization or a non-profit one? They mean the same thing, but one of them just sounds better, right? That’s semantics and their underlying psychology at work.

Reframing the problem (and the solution)

It’s not enough for non-profits to start calling themselves for-impact. There needs to be a strong tonal shift across the organization’s appeal efforts, as well as in advertising and owned media. There’s a counter-culture element at play, which means getting the general public to adopt a new vernacular with the same meaning. 

Undertaking an intent-driven rebrand is often difficult for most charitable organizations for two reasons: a shoestring budget and a skeleton crew in the marketing department. Save for larger regional and national organizations, non-profits are typically short-staffed—or staffed with specialists that are knowledgeable about their organization’s focus… but not so much with marketing. Safe to say, these organizations benefit tremendously from an advertising partner and/or fractional marketing expertise

Take a private school, for example. Their mission is to teach and advance the education of their students; however, they often miss moments to properly market the benefits of how, exactly, they do this. There are often countless examples to draw from (especially in the education space), but the intent of messaging often focuses on the objective, rather than the impact. Don’t tell me why I should enroll my child—tell me how my child will benefit!

It all comes down to reframing. Don’t talk about the problem; talk about the solution—and how your organization generates impact. 

Be you and do what you do

Long before Simon Sinek pointed out the problem with non-profit branding, an age-old adage said it first: “it doesn’t matter who you are, it matters what you do.” Charitable organizations shouldn’t define themselves by what they are. To gain the support they need to succeed, these organizations need to emphasize what they do. 

Let’s be honest: no one wants to be defined by what they’re not. It’s important to lead from the affirmative—especially if you’re a for-impact organization that’s intent on making the world a better place. Reach out to the JXM team and let us help you tell the story of what you do, so your organization can focus on being itself—instead of something it’s not.