Brand lessons non-profits can learn from small business – and vice versa: A chat with Aimee Stone Munsell

Non-profits and small businesses have a ton in common: not enough resources, time or budget to spread their message and acquire customers (donors) while also getting their work done. But sometimes, they are sabotaging themselves and there are simple brand fixes and marketing tactics these organizations can implement  to get more bang for their buck. We’ll share some ideas in today’s Slice of Brilliance column.

Aimee Stone Munsell is owner of Stone Munsell and co-founder of Real-World Super Heroes, a hands-on community service program for kids. She and I have partnered on branding projects together and I absolutely adore her work ehtic, creativity and brilliance. Aimee worka with the smartest, most interesting people she can find – as clients, partners, employees, expert advisors — to tackle challenges that make a difference for the client and also for the world whenever possible. Her measurement for success: “I’m proud to tell my family what I do.”

So I’ve asked her to share with us the 3 mistakes non-profits make (ahem….that many small businesses do, too) and inexpensive ways to delight customers who’ve just purchased or donated. Plus, she gives you some resources and case sudies of companies engaged in social reponsibility, which is a win-win for everyone.

RS: Welcome Aimee! You’ve worked a lot with non-profits. Why do you think many of them don’t have strong brand awareness?

ASM: Let’s be honest: it takes time and money to build a brand. This is true for any business or non-profit cecause you have to fight through all the clutter out there to connect with the right audience – again and again in multiple ways, over time — to build a strong brand. And why invest in it? Because it is a key building block of sustainability. But it isn’t necessarily seen this way. Many non-profit leaders are in their jobs because they know a lot about the services they provide (as we’d hope!) but haven’t necessarily been trained in business skills. When I work with an NFP’s leadership team, we focus on their goals which often include things such as: bring in more donations, secure new grants, increase community support, and form partnerships to expand services. Then we assess the organization’s current brand position and marketing activity. And finally, together we come up with a focused plan of attack that takes into account the resources they have, often creating execution phased over 6-24 months, to get them where they need to be.

RS: Non-profits as well as many small businesses seem to struggle with messaging and conveying their passion and accomplishments in their marketing materials (website, collateral). What top 3 tips could help them improve?

ASM: Well Maria, as your tagline says: your brand should tell your story! Fortunately, compelling stories, really important reasons for being, are what most non-profits are all about. So they have a natural sdvantage in creating and communicating their brands. Yet somehow that story gets lost in the execution.
Time for some straight-talk, to bring your story to life:

  • Stop pretending you are the only organization doing (generally) what you do. Look at your organization in context of others in your space. I’m working with an amazing Fair Trade organization called HandCrafting Justice (really, check it out). When I visited its Web site, the organization sounded great.  Until I visited other Fair Trade sites and déjà vu took over. So now I’m helping HandCrafting Justice revamp its communications (hint: this includes not just text but also graphics, media and even tactics) to bring to life its quality of the products and holistic approach to empowerment v. others in the Fair Trade space. Your constituents aren’t living in a vacuum; they visit multiple Web sites, follow multiple organizations on twitter, and talk to their friends, so you better do the same – and then focus on telling your unique story.
  • Replace stale language. Your materials may be accurate but they are also likely outdated and academic and …zzzz. Oh sorry, I dozed off reading about disadvantaged someones and economic and social benefits. I know you don’t want to have to entertain me when you are doing important work, but please don’t lecture me either. Today’s language, driven by online norms, is more conversational. So loosen up. Write how you talk. (Hint: interview or record at an event the executive director and staff to capture great phrases that describe what you do in plain English). Reframe what you are doing using modern examples to re-fresh your mission and make it relevant to the trends people are participating in today. Could your afterschool program for at-risk teens “help kids to become the reality stars of their own lives”? Does your charity provide “a social network for seniors”?  You want me to buy parts for a delivery truck in a remote village? I’ll pass. You want me to become a micro-lender? Sign me up!
  • Use modern (and multi) media.  Yes, you need to be online. To what extent varies, but if you want to grow and be a leader (or even integral part) of your industry’s future, online is a must. Fortunately, Web sites and services make it affordable to create and share video, photos, and animated slide shows. Yes, you may need to hire some help to get started and invest some time in learning, but the assets you create once can be used and re-used multiple ways online and also to make offline activities like face-to-face business development meetings and fundraising events more successful. Your hard copy materials should contain professional graphics in modern colors and fonts, something you can easily attain with today’s publishing applications or with a few hours of professional graphic design help. Also, right now infographics are really popular and a great way for non-profits to share what they do in a digestible way on and offline. Get started with Fast Company’s Review of 5 Best Free Tools for Making Slick Infographics.

RS: What is one easy thing non-profits (and small buisinesses) can do to increase their marketing ROI?

ASM: One very simple low-cost action you can take is to carry the brand experience through the purchase process. In non-profits, this is often called closing the loop with donors. In for-profit, we tend to talk about reinforcing the purchase decision and helping avoid any buyer’s remorse. It amazes me that most organizations invest so much in acquiring a customer (including donors in this) only to say nothing else to them (except for the ubiquitous automatic confirmation email) until it is time to sell (or ask for) something else.  Get creative about expressing your thanks. Some inspiration:

  • – This charity requires the classroom benefiting from your donation to create a thank you packet. I can say from personal experience, receiving a big envelope full of hand written and drawn cards from the teacher and children you’ve helped is an uplifting experience. The packet often arrives months after you’ve made your donation (because the thanks are authentically written after the donation is actually put to work), closing the loop right when you’re wondering “I wonder whatever happened with…” If the impact of your donors’ contributions takes place sometime in the
    future, it is especially important to go back and share your results – and thanks — with those who gave. How can you help the end beneficiaries of your work thank your donors? Could you send a postcard signed by the seniors you serve with a photo of some on the front? Could you extend an invitation to attend a post-show discussion with the actors in your latest production so that they share their excitement about the production firsthand?
  • – Last year, I used this site for the first time to get a gift for my shutterbug friend. The Website was friendly and products fun but the reason I can still recall (and recommend) the company was that my package arrived with a yellow sticker on the outside warning me about a potential stowaway dinosaur. Yes, a toy dinosaur was indeed inside (insert smile here). This weird little surprise effectively conveyed the company’s quirky personality and stuck with me. (All at a cost to Photojojo of maybe a nickel.) Etsy retailers are great at this. Most of these small artisans include a handwritten thank you and a free sample or tiny handmade gift with your purchase. What surprise token can you provide that illustrates your brand?  How about a few band-aids and a health tip from one of the nurses in your network? Or a coupon to a local healthy eatery for your donor helping you fight hunger in the city? What about a fun or inspiring thank you video instead of just a text email? And now for an idea that is really out there: what if you used the phone to call your donors this week, not to ask for money, but simply to say thank you for giving?

The bottom line: After a customer/supporter has made a purchase (or donated), s/he is ripe to build a relationship with you and just a small (read: inexpensive) creative reinforcement creates loyalty and word-of-mouth that reaps more revenue at lower costs long into the future.

PLUS: It seems that a lot of branding and marketing best practices are applicable across non-profits and businesses. Is there more these two groups can learn from each other?

One of the most exciting things happening today is the collision of the non-profit and for-profit into the growing space of social enterprise. Regardless of the type of entity a venture is – and the legal system is just starting to catch up with this hybrid mentality —  social enterprises are exciting because they experiment with using market dynamics, or business models, to create sustainable operations to help people, animals, or our environment. The world is ready for this. Businesses have been evolving in this direction for a while – albeit at varying rates — but established non-profits seem to be largely missing the boat. I encourage non-profits to take page out of the social enterprise approach: take an expansive view of who your community is (or can be) and seek out constituents who are willing to pay for assets or services to create new revenue sources. This creates a more diverse and sustainable organization.

Some inspirations:

  • First Slice. This self-funding charity was started by Chef Mary Ellen Diaz to feed the hungry wholesome, home-cooked fare that nourishes both body and soul. Busy families purchase (at market rates) First Slice subscriptions providing them with three prepared gourmet meals each week. First Slice then uses the subscriber revenue to provide the same beautiful meals to people in need. The First Slice café (which is also where subscribers pick up their meals weekly) brings the whole community together.
  • Luta clothing – Fight for Peace was started by former boxer Luke Dowdney to provide a way out for young people living in the favelas of Brazil. This non-profit has received accolades for its model and created champions in and out of the ring in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the world. To help fund expansion the organization created Luta, a for-profit venture selling authentic fightwear, trainingwear and streetwear, with at least 50% of the profits going to Fight for Peace.
  • Real-World Super Heroes – When Mindy Miller and I decided to create a community service program for kids we explored different funding options. We talked to lots of parents and they told us that developing their children as socially-responsible citizens was worth at least as much to them as them learning hip-hop dance or other skills typically taught in after-school programs. So, parents pay for the program and as a group we donate time, talent and goods to the non-profits with work with in our neighborhood.

If you’d like more info about Aimee’s marketing work, please visit Stone Munsell. For more info about her non-profit endeavors and the Real World Super Heroes program in NYC, email her at or DM @munsellnyc

Please share your one branding lesson learned from this post and how you will take action in the Comments!

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