Charities need to remind themselves what they stand for, then own it

Brand awareness is what, brand image is why. And image should be the key point of focus for any brand. Especially for not-for-profits who need to reshape their brand to make profit with pride, says Meals on Wheels CEO John Carroll, in this guest post.

Many companies agonise over vision and mission statements, or some flavour-of-the-month visioning tool. Usually, these pieces of rhetoric are no sooner created than forgotten in the humdrum of daily operations.

John Carroll. Pic: Lindsay Moller Photography
But few organisations ever think about their core purpose – why they exist in the first place. And even fewer actually live by that purpose.

Apple and Virgin are two notable exceptions and look at the rewards they have reaped as a result. Both have been able to build long-lasting, cross-category empires under a single brand.

Simon Sinek’s concept that people buy why not what is arguably the reason behind this success. People want to engage with Apple and Virgin because of what they stand for.

So it’s paradoxical that not-for-profits and charities, who should be in the box seat when it comes to the why, seldom capitalise on what they naturally have.

Their core purpose should be crystal clear. Yet few of them build a strong brand image on the back of that. They seem to believe that because they exist for a good purpose, people will automatically engage with them. But it doesn’t necessarily follow.

Meals on Wheels is a great example: brand awareness is high – everyone knows the name, but it’s often thought to be a free charity that provides tasteless meals for the frail and elderly, the final step before the nursing home; when in fact the meals are subsidised, not free and are (mostly) pretty good.

The purpose of Meals on Wheels is to help keep people out of nursing homes. But many people who would benefit from the convenience of quality meals delivered to their door, the social inclusion programs and other options that many Meals on Wheels services offer, don’t sign up because they misunderstand what the brand means.

Awareness isn’t enough. Image and perceptions are a crucial part of developing a strong brand. As Steve Jobs said, getting heard through the clamour in today’s noisy world is about values. People have to know what you stand for or they won’t engage with you; there are too many others clamouring for their attention. NFPs are not exempt from this rule.

Apple, as Jobs pointed out, isn’t about making boxes for people to get their jobs done – although they do that very well. At core, Apple is about a belief that people with passion can change the world for the better. Apple fans buy into that in spades.

That’s why Apple has been able, unlike most of its competitors, to very successfully break across a number of product categories, where other big names in their sector have tried and failed.

The Virgin story isn’t that different. Richard Branson says the focus at Virgin is on diversity and inclusion, giving back to communities, and on many environmental and social issues, from climate change to LGBT rights, to ending the war on drugs. And most importantly, having fun while doing it. That fits right into the pocket of today’s consumer.

NFPs and charities should take a leaf out of the Virgin and Apple how-to books. In part, the problem is linked to misconceptions about charities and NFPs. The myth that not-for-profits can’t and shouldn’t make a profit, is one example.

The general distaste for NFPs spending money on marketing activities is another. The average donor looks at the costs of a charity first and the impact it has second, if at all. That’s sad.shane-warne-foundation-twitter-post-chris-vedelago

Look at how we ripped the Shane Warne Foundation to shreds because they spent money (yes, quite a lot), on events and functions, and – shock, horror – their employees. But the foundation has now been fully cleared by the ACNC of any wrongdoing. And they donated quite a lot of money – $3.6 million, according to Shane Warne – to charity.

Personally, I don’t care that they spent money to do that; they’ve done some good in the world. And by pulling down a tall poppy in the time-honoured Aussie tradition, we’ve probably robbed underprivileged children of millions of dollars in funding that could have done a lot more good. Shame on us!

But the blame for poor public attitudes and ignorance probably lands squarely on the NFPs and charities themselves. NFPs are so convinced that people will support them if they know they exist, that they forget the importance of building image along with awareness.

The key is understanding that brand awareness is the what; brand image is the why. And image should be the key point of focus for any brand. Remember the Sinek concept: people buy why.

But the why can’t be like so many vision and mission statements – just pretentious lip-service. The challenge for NFPs and charities is to start truly living the why. To do that, they must really understand and develop a pervasive belief in their core purpose. It must permeate through everything they do.

Then they have a chance of getting real engagement and support from staff, stakeholders and the public. If you’re living your why, you start to become believable, credible. Only then can you begin to cut through the clutter because you have a uniqueness about what you do.

And uniqueness is something you can shout about. No, it’s something you must shout about as an NFP.

Counter the naysayers who try to pull down the tall poppy. Prove them wrong by showing the world what a positive impact you’re having on it. If you do that, you can have more impact. And isn’t positive impact exactly why an NFP does what it does?

John Carroll is a leadership, brand and business strategist and CEO at Meals on Wheels Mid North Coast and joint CEO at Omnicare Alliance, where he is leading both organisations through a series of major changes in the human services environment.


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