Just Like Doraemon

“If this organization were a fairy tale character, it would be Doraemon because it always meets the needs of the people it serves, no matter what that need is.  This organization pulls tools out of its pocket that solve any problem, and it works across generations… just like Doraemon.”

–             International graduate student and board member playing “Organizational Apples to Apples”

[For those of you who don’t know, Doraemon is a cat-like robot Japanese manga character that has a fourth-dimensional pocket out of which he pulls amazing tools and that goes back in time to help a boy solve problems, and along the way teach us about important values.]

At the intersection of social change and non-profit management is the concept of branding, the creation of a consistent public image that draws people into an organization’s work.  I have interacted in different ways with at least five non-profit organizations in the last two weeks, and all of them have recognized the need to better brand what they do in order to expand their impact.  Like with most things in life, resources beget resources as investments in branding yield donations, volunteers, and a bigger community.

I led a second board workshop on branding this past weekend, and it has gotten me thinking about how organizations with activities broad in scope  face unique challenges in branding their work.  Through my own adaptation of Apples to Apples, a kid-friendly party game, I invited participants to dig deeper into their understanding of the organization’s work in order to arrive at the most important adjectives that capture the essence of that organization’s personality and positioning.  (I have put the directions and resources needed for this game here in case you want to play with your own organization.)

Out the these discussions came three trends that pose challenges for small non-profit organizations working in close contact with grassroots communities.

Identity crisis

The first question to arise centers around who is being branded.  Many social change organizations place a community in a poor part of the world central to their work.  We create the space so that they can do their work, and they do or believe (fill in the blank).  Shifting the conversation from “they” to “we” takes discipline because it runs counter to the core belief that we are about them.  The social change activist in all of us pulls us towards blurring the lines between our communities, but that may not benefit in the long-term the community we are trying to help.

“We” is important, because without “we” there might not be a “they,” at least organizationally.  Non-profit leaders need to adopt dual identities around “we collectively” – the “we” that crosses borders—and “we locally” – the we that exists within arms reach.  (I imagine something like the Kwaio language in the Solomon Islands that has words for “we two,” “we few,” and “we many.”)  Branding for “we few” looks different from that of “we many,” and yet it is critical for non-profit funding organizations to set themselves apart from their partners to make the case that they add value to the work of the indigenous project.

“If our organization were a sport, it would either be soccer or a relay race.  Soccer because it is global and can be played on any open field.  A relay race because each individual matters, but in the end it is a team effort passed from one generation of runners to the next.”

In the clouds

Social change organizations have such a broad scope that their branding can lead to vague terms that say little about the impact of their diverse initiatives.  As they implement projects from child nutrition to education to the promotion of human rights, explaining this work in a tagline leads to such pabulum as “we open doors,” “we transform lives,” or “we end poverty.”  Words and phrases like “partnership,” “sustainable,” “transformational,” and “breaking the cycle of poverty” are used by so many groups with such diverse and sometimes incompatible approaches that they have become unhelpful in branding one organization different from another.  Each term begs a definition in order for outsiders to understand how that organization is applying it.

“If our organization were a car, it would be a pick-up truck.  If you have a pick-up truck, you will always have friends, and you can take a lot of people along with you for the ride.”

It’s hard to be the best

The branding process falls into two stages.  The first stage is for an organization to understand its personality—what words, images, or feelings come to mind when people think about your organization.  The second stage is harder because it involves the development of language around that organization’s unique position in context with all of the other organizations doing similar work.  Those involved in the organizational branding need to think in terms of how their organization is the best, most, or only something.

Why is this so hard?  Grassroots activists tend not to be very competitive.  They have created organizations by navigating a political and funding landscape where fitting in matters.  They have built partnerships with other like-minded organizations for inspirational support and guidance.  These leaders tend to approach their work from a humanitarian perspective where being the best at something is not a core value.  And yet within the competition that exists for limited funding support, being unique matters.

“Our organization is the only entrance point in the U.S. for partnership with this group of people in that country.”

 I know many organizations that are just like Doraemon, doing amazing work that touches generations of students, impoverished people, and local community members.  All they need is one of those fourth-dimensional pockets into which they can reach and grab some branding tools that expand their reach into new communities.

For further thought… a book, a website, and some a video boot camp:

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