The Elusive Nonprofit Brand

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 23rd, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Fast Company has been running a series called USA: Can This Brand Be Saved?” With the goal of exploring what our brand is, how that brand has changed over the past four years and what needs to happen to see if the brand can be saved, the series has come at this goal from a variety of perspectives. Some of the articles have given me hope; some have left me quite despondent.

Embarrassed woman

The most recent one, about pride in being an American, made me think about the brand of the nonprofit sector and where it currently stands. I see several parallels to the nonprofit sector?

I don’t know how delighted folks are to say they work for a nonprofit when they are in a group of those who don’t work in the sector. In fact, more often than not, I hear a note of an apology when people say they work for a nonprofit, a note of “I wish I didn’t have to admit this.”  No pride there.  

Recent data about people’s trust in nonprofits (which I’ll get to shortly) doesn’t warrant pride. Unlike America, our sector doesn’t fan the flames of pride, and that is likely to our detriment. Just to be clear:  I am not talking about the boastful, harmful, self-aggrandizing pride that puts others down and off, but rather the pride that recognizes the goodness of the work being done, the credibility and sincerity of the effort, the decency of the people involved, and the commitment to making a better world for all.

The data on pride in being an American is interesting.  According to the Harris Poll conducted for Fast Company the weekend of November 14-15, 65% of Americans polled answered yes to the question, “Are you proud  to be an American in 2020?”  Responses varied by gender, with 72% of men and just 59% of women saying they were proud, and by age, with 74% of those 65+ expressing pride and only 56% of those18-34 saying they were proud to be an American. Interestingly, race was not a factor, as 68% of both whites and blacks and 67% of Hispanics noted their pride in being an American.

Interesting that despite months of massive protests seeking social justice, people of color are just as proud to be Americans as whites. They are just as proud to be part of a country that has not, simply put, done right by them. Maybe it is just me, but I couldn’t be proud to be part of a group that didn’t reflect my core values, a group that I couldn’t trust to do what I think is the right thing. For me, trusting and pride go hand in hand, which is why I read of pride and thought of the very recent data on trust in nonprofits.

The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, considered by many to be the standard-bearer on trust research, released in May, using data collected April 15-23 of this year. Just 56% of the Americans surveyed said they trust nonprofits, a score Edelman terms “neutral”—neither  trusting nor distrusting nonprofits.  And although up six points since the beginning of the year, it leaves the US ranking eighth out of eleven countries. In no category about response to the pandemic did even close to half of Americans surveyed say that nonprofits were doing well to  very well.   

At 43%, nonprofits were thought to be doing well or very well with “coordinating local relief efforts getting food, healthcare services and financial support to the most vulnerable members of our community.”  Helping in time of need is so many people’s first thought about nonprofits and most Americans don’t think we are getting that done during COVID.  Furthermore, only 40% indicated that we were doing well or really well in “meeting [their] overall expectations for how they should be responding in this crisis.” 

I read this and I don’t see Americans being proud of its nonprofit sector. I read this and I don’t feel proud of my sector. Yet, do I know that so many of our nonprofits have worked tirelessly to figure out how they can continue to fulfill their mission promises during these past eight plus months?  Absolutely. Do I know how amazingly so many nonprofits were able to not just quickly pivot to find ways to provide what they had always done, but to also introduce new  programs and services to meet new needs stemming from COVID? Absolutely. Do I know that many of these same nonprofits that did this remarkable work had to do so with reduced staff, staff getting reduced compensation and often with fewer other resources? Absolutely. And, yet, too many others are apparently unaware of all of this and, as a result, devalue the sector.

I want to say we have allowed our brand to be tarnished, but that statement assumes we, as a sector, have a brand. And as much as it saddens me to say this, I don’t think we do. Perhaps right now, since it wouldn’t look good for our brand (if it existed), it is good that we have none. But, in the long run, it would be good for the sector to have a clear brand from which every nonprofit could benefit, because it would tell the story of who and what we are, and be a brand of which we could all be proud.   

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.