Branding tips for small charities

This post outlines some of the ways smaller charities can work with a branding agency to get the best results.

Somerset Community Foundation rebrand – merchandise

When Somerset Community Foundation* approached us to review their brand identity, we knew we could help. They recognised that their existing branding was no longer fit for purpose and wanted us to recommend a way forward. They wanted their brand to be front and centre in their mission of inspiring philanthropy and enabling social action in the county.

*Community foundations are charitable organisations that support defined geographical areas, generating and directing funds to the causes and places that need them most through their work with local charities, community groups and social enterprises.

An imaginative approach

Somerset Community Foundation were already well aware that a strong brand identity could help build their profile, increase funding and enable them to do more good work. But, in common with other small charitable organisations, they were concerned about budgets, knowing that any form of rebranding exercise represents a significant investment in time and money. Although the funds community foundations regularly disburse are often large amounts, they’re restricted in how much they can use for non-grant giving activities such as marketing and communications. Rather than cut corners, we were going to have to be creative in how we approached the task so that we could achieve the best outcome for the budget available.

This post outlines some of the ways smaller charities can work with a branding agency to get the best results. Needless to say, there are useful tips here that will work just as well for larger charities too.

Branding tips for smaller charities

Engage the collaboration gear

Everything about the rebranding exercise will go better if you get the chief exec and trustees involved from the get-go. From writing and agreeing the RFP, to including a small cohort in a core steering group, this approach, although it might seem counter-intuitive at first, will help you avoid the dreaded ‘design by committee’ headaches that might crop up later on.

An engaged group that has followed the process from start to finish will, in my experience, be more inclined to push for the best and most strategic solution, and resist the urge to dilute through small changes – otherwise known as death by a thousand cuts!

Sell the need for change

Some staff and trustees may think that rebranding is purely a superficial, cosmetic exercise, one that distracts from the importance of delivering the charity’s mission. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to take the time to communicate why rebranding matters. Help people to understand that building a brand is not just about brand colours and the shape of the logo but that it goes much deeper than that – to a level of values, behaviours, vision and strategy. Use examples and case studies of past charity rebrands with stats and testimonials to show the positive all-round impact a refreshed brand identity can have.

“This was a significant investment for our organisation, both financially and in terms of the time involved as a small team. It was crucial for us to get our Trustees, Senior Leadership Team and wider staff team on board with the process from an early stage. While it was clear to all of us that the way we looked was outdated, we also really had to help everyone understand what brand means beyond the visuals. We had to show them how this work would help us better understand our stakeholders, grow the funds we raise for our communities and, ultimately, better deliver our mission.” – Laura Blake, Philanthropy Director, Somerset Community Foundation

Build on firm foundations

Spend time on setting out the strategic direction for the brand before jumping into the creative element of the work. It might be tempting to ‘DIY’ at this stage – only briefing the branding agency once you’ve defined your positioning, vision, mission and values yourself. But this is, after all, their area of expertise. Skipping their involvement and supposedly saving yourself time and money at this stage is a false economy – any short-term savings will be far outweighed by opportunities lost. You can ask them to review and rearticulate what you define but, in a perfect world, you’ll get them to lead from these research stages.

Share the load

Assuming you need to save costs, ask your consultant or agency about what you can do to share some of the research tasks. You need to acquire a full understanding of what your audience cares about and what resonates with them. One really great way to do that is to gather insights from your stakeholders by running short brand perception interviews. In a perfect world, these would be carried out by a professional consultant, ideally an independent or someone from your chosen branding agency. Having these carried out by a neutral, third person means that the interviewees are likely to be more open and unguarded in their responses. But, where budgets are tight, getting your brand design consultant to conduct a handful of interviews and then arranging for someone in the charity to run the rest is a good solution. In this case, ask your consultant to share the questions they’re asking so that you’re both able to follow the same format.

Engage in active listening: As a rule of thumb, if you’re talking more than 20% of the time, you’re probably talking too much! Take care not to ask leading questions or introduce bias through commenting. Use transcription software like and share the full transcript with your consultant. Don’t be tempted to hand over an abridged version as they’ll spot things in the full text that you might not have realised are important.

“Whilst we do an annual survey of key stakeholders, we’d never done stakeholder interviews and they were so revealing. We gained such a wealth of insight and deepened our understanding of our value proposition. We could see the trust our donors have in us and the credibility we’ve built and that gave us a huge confidence boost as a team, as well as encouraging us to be ambitious about growing our income and impact in the future.” – Laura Blake, Philanthropy Director, Somerset Community Foundation

If budgets are too tight for 1:1 interviews – run surveys. By making use of free tools like Google Forms, they’re a relatively cheap way to gather insights which, if not quite as valuable as those from interviews, will still be useful.

Include all voices

As well as taking in the views of your direct stakeholders, staff, trustees and donors, you need to consider how your beneficiaries will respond to a refreshed brand identity. Naturally, inclusivity is likely to be a key ethos within your organisation, so evidence-gathering and consultation stages with beneficiaries is a step that should ideally not be skipped.

Run a single or a series of focus groups, inviting several beneficiaries in a room or online (if they’re comfortable with digital workshop software, such as Miro or Mural). Offer an incentive and provide space for people to share their stories, make new connections by, for example, working in pairs, and get your brand design consultant to facilitate group discussions with exercises.

Although you may only be at the strategy stage at this point, this is a great opportunity to test and even challenge assumptions. Ask your agency or consultant to provide tone of voice exercises and creative moodboards in the focus group. It will be a way of gathering evidence for the direction you choose to go in which will, in turn, help you to sell the final creative solution to the board.

Somerset Community Foundation brand discovery workshops

Allow enough time

It takes time to build a recognisable brand and a brand identity is something that needs to last. One thing you can’t afford to do is to chop and change identities – either financially or in terms of building recognition through consistency. A brand identity built in a hurry will likely need fixing later (ask any founder of a startup – they’ll almost certainly have rushed getting to market, consequently needing to redo their branding not too far down the line). Don’t rush the process. Let the agency agree deadlines with you and then stick to them. Keeping to your milestones as regards, say, providing feedback, is as important as the agency’s schedule. They’re likely to be working on more than one project and so being able to plan resources is crucial to their business model.

Evaluate the final concept

How many opportunities can you build in for evaluating the design? If budgets and timescales allow, will you be able to test the final solution? I’ve written in-depth about this in an earlier blog post. Remember, not everyone you test the concepts on will have a full understanding of the strategic objectives or have your background knowledge so always ask yourself: what don’t they know and why are we testing this? Too many opinions can create indecision, so any evaluation step needs to be carefully managed.

Commission good quality documentation and templates

Don’t be tempted to scrimp on brand guidelines. A four-page PDF won’t cut it if you want your team and creative partners to stay on-brand. You’ll need to come up with detailed guidance that should typically, but not exclusively, include:

  • Logo usage, variants and positioning
  • Co-branding guidance
  • Sub brands advice
  • Colour, including proportional use and accessibility rules
  • Typography
  • Photography
  • Placement and use of graphic devices/illustrations in the brand system
  • Application examples

“We have to save money where we can and know that we need to use trusted freelance graphic designers to deliver our day-to-day comms. But we also didn’t want to hamstring their creativity or lose the consistency and essence of our new brand story – so clear and thorough guidelines were essential to us” – Sue Wheeler, Marketing Manager, Somerset Community Foundation

Commissioning the branding agency to produce a set of editable templates for internal use, not only maintains professional standards but also means the marcomms team don’t have to spend time making design decisions and can focus on the content.

Encourage a culture of collaboration

A rebranding project will almost certainly result in a new or refreshed website. Very rarely do branding agencies know as much about UX, technical accessibility, functionality and SEO as a specialist digital agency or developer. It makes total sense to work with more than one delivery partner. Connect them together – make sure they’re happy to be open and collaborate with each other.

If both the branding agency and the digital agency run a discovery phase, ask them if they can coordinate this stage. Typically, the branding agency will be ‘up first’ so encourage them to share their interview and survey questions. In this way the digital agency can ask them to include their questions if appropriate (meaning the exercise only needs to be done once).

“We worked with a separate agency for web and made sure from the start they were happy to work collaboratively to ensure they had a strong sense of our brand and kept true to the that during the build. Both Sue and our web agency Cognique worked brilliantly together.” – Laura Blake, Philanthropy Director, Somerset Community Foundation

Ask the branding agency and the digital partner to set time aside for a handover. This will give the brand consultant the opportunity to talk through their strategy, highlighting why their creative choices are important and answering any questions. Don’t just rely on handing over a brand guidelines document, expecting your partners to run with it.

Similarly, when the digital agency presents their first draft page designs, bring the branding specialists back in to the review process. The essence of what the new branding says about your organisation can get lost or misinterpreted however extensive your brand guidelines and thorough your plans and this is the perfect opportunity to keep things on track.

With bigger budgets, you’d expect the brand consultant to stay on board in a creative director role throughout the process, but by involving them at key milestones (as outlined above), you can ensure you have a cost-effective ‘light touch’ version of that.

Manage the trustee sign-off process

Project governance is something that you will have already carefully thought through. You and your agency partner will have agreed the number of steps in the reporting process to the senior leadership and board. Managing that final trustee sign-off and preventing a last-minute derailment is key to the success of the project.

If you choose to offer the trustees a choice of options – never put forward anything you couldn’t live with – it might get chosen. My personal preference, and how we worked with Somerset Community Foundation, was to refine and agree one concept and present that. Everyone doesn’t have to like it, but they do have to reach a consensus. Bring your creative partner into the meeting to be on hand to either present or respond to questions and concerns.

“I wanted Sue in the room, she has years of experience fielding objections and opinions. As it is, we didn’t have any issues, together we were able to demonstrate that the final solution was the right one, based on research and strategic decisions.” – Laura Blake, Philanthropy Director, Somerset Community Foundation

Embed and inspire

A successful rebrand is not something that’s cosmetic, touching only the surface of an organisation. The early stages of the project will have seen you going deep and defining your brand values. These can take time to bed in with staff so do consider running internal workshops to get people to think about what each value means to them individually, as a team and for your audience. Consider ways that you can bring your values into new staff onboarding processes (induction manuals) and performance reviews.

“The Co-Foundry provided us with a workshop framework so we could run this ourselves. It wasn’t perfect but it worked for us. You have to make tough choices when you’re working to a strict budget. I guess my advice would be to find a consultant or agency who are open to sharing and looking for ways to support you.” – Laura Blake, Philanthropy Director, Somerset Community Foundation

In summary

If you’re only going to take one thing from the tips listed, make it the following:

  • Focus on being open and inclusive.

It might be tempting to keep any sort of branding exercise to a small group within the charity but if there’s one single thing you absolutely must do, it’s to involve people across the organisation and beyond. Keeping them informed will not only make the whole branding process run much more smoothly, it’ll also help achieve that all-important buy-in for your new branding.

“We want our team and trustees to be proud of our new identity. Taking everyone on the journey means they become true advocates for the brand” – Justin Sargent, Chief Executive, Somerset Community Foundation

View the full Somerset Community Foundation case study here

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