Know Your Ecosystem: Reject the outdated notions of Nonprofit Unicorn Keepers. Don’t let Super-Idealists mislead you about the nature of the nonprofit ecosystem. I urge you to recognize that your nonprofit organization really is a business. It operates in a competitive environment. You contest with other causes and organizations for every dollar you raise, for every good volunteer or director or employee you acquire, for every bit of public attention you attract, for every endorsement you obtain. In fact, you compete for every resource necessary to fulfill your mission. Sure, you are a nonprofit. Nevertheless, you operate in the real world and must compete in the marketplace just like the for-profits do.
Know Your Brand: Your brand is not your logo. It is not the sign on your building. It is not your positioning statement or anything else you can control. Instead, your brand is public perception – no more and no less. In normal circumstances, a brand evolves incrementally and has a degree of stability. But Brand-Sharks lurk.
Know Brand-Sharks: The Jim Carey movie introduced us to Dumb & Dumber. In the past couple years hubris-driven leaders of Congress, Komen and Penn State introduced us to DUMBEST – the highest level of achievements in brand mismanagement. We have been shown how great brands that took years to build can quickly unravel when leaders lose sight of mission and start making dumbest decisions. We have all observed the predictable consequences: a stew forms, comprised of uninformed gossip, valid criticism, comments from discontented employees and supporters, enhanced credibility of competing organizations and more. These are covered by mass media and repeated in common discussion. They fuse in the public’s mind. The public’s mind is where brands live! Bad leadership creates and unleashes Brand-Sharks. Within a short time the sharks consume huge chunks of the brand. We’ve all seen it happen.
Fear Brand-Guppies: Realistically, I believe few nonprofit leaders have the hubris to create Brand-Sharks like those achieved in the three examples above. Your brand faces another danger. It is easy to ignore. But no less dangerous. Your brand can be nibbled to death by guppies! THAT is the real risk. If allowed to accumulate, these mild critters become dangerous. They attack as a group. That’s when they are killers.
Protect Against Brand-Guppies: Every element of real or perceived contact with a member of the public can spawn a guppy.
The condition of the dumpster behind your building, the way your phone is answered, the speed with which calls are transferred, employee grammar and spelling, the paint on your front door, whether your entrance is shoveled right after a snowstorm, the way your employees dress, the age and presentation of magazines in your waiting room, the cleanliness of your windows, the way your staff follows up with clients and supporters – and hundreds of other unrelated little indicators. They all share one characteristic….. they shape public perception.
Public perception IS YOUR BRAND!
Back to your ecosystem: Doing good work for society does not immunize you from the real world and its Darwinian Rules. Contrary to the ideology of Super-Idealists, nonprofits operate in a fiercely competitive market where public perception (your brand) has a strong influence on financial support and mission success. So beware of Brand-Guppies. They are somewhat ubiquitous. Every employee, every supporter, every interaction, every physical or visual or verbal representation of your organization can create them. In a group these little critters can nibble your brand to death. In that process your brand will be eroded. Your revenue will suffer. Your mission may be at risk – as will be your job security. Those who are not dumb enough to create a Brand-Shark must be wise enough to prevent Brand-Guppies.