Not for what? Why the NGO sector needs to rethink its branding

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Rethinking philanthropy

No sector in its right mind should define itself by what it’s not. So why do non-government organisations (NGOs) and not-for-profits (NFPs) do exactly that: define themselves so proudly by what doesn’t get done rather than what they do?

No is not a brand. Car manufacturers aren’t in the non-bike business. Food manufacturers aren’t in the non-hunger business. Phone companies are not in the anti-isolation business. So, excuse the pun, but what gives?

Both the NGO and NFP labels, it strikes me, are useless ways of positioning those intend on delivering on a strong altruistic intention. First of all because the terms themselves carry no meaning. (Not being part of government doesn’t actually make anyone part of anything.) Secondly, because to be perfectly frank, every organisation is interested in making money – it’s just what they do with it that differs. And thirdly, and most importantly, because the NFP/NGO label doesn’t talk about the one thing that really motivates those who are being asked to support and donate: the difference that their support actually makes.

That is increasingly important in my view as organisations move into service provision in order to broaden their income streams and dilute their dependence on grants and donations. Now that they are making money in order to fund their good works, describing their purpose rather than the entity itself seems to me to be a much more robust basis for branding the sector as a whole.

Let’s look at this from a customer perspective for a moment. What do people want to give to or support? More particularly, what do they want to believe in? The feedback I get in my work across this area is unanimous. Supporters want to see change. They want to see justice. They want to see the right thing being done. They want to contribute to a solution.

And that sentiment, surely, should form the basis for a description of the wider sector. In the spirit of positive suggestions, let me make one: the impact sector. The part of the economy that addresses what needs to change in the world. And perhaps a further segmentation: communal impact (locally focused); and global impact (big picture).

If you’re thinking that this seems like a lot of fuss over just a label, let me explain why I think renaming the NGO/NFP sector is important. The power of a name lies in what it signals, not just what it says. Changing the name of this part of the economy to the “impact sector” signals a change in the conversation – from how entities want to describe themselves to what recipients, supporters and benefactors want to see them achieving. It makes the sector bigger and more important than its tax status, which of course it is. And it implies a dramatic shift in the accountabilities from actions taken to achievements gained – and that, as specialists in this space like Jay Goulart remind us, is the real make or break in credibility.

Feel free to disagree – or to suggest.

Photo of “I can make a difference” by Omar Reyes, sourced from Flickr

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