Brand first, funding second.
Build the brand behind the grant — to maximize funding and advance social justice
What’s the first priority for nonprofit and foundation leaders? Hint: it applies to both early- and growth-stage organizations. And it’s invaluable for doers and donors alike.
But some background first.
Only one in 1,000 nonprofits grow beyond a small business. More than 260,000 foundations make grants to help them — but money alone is not enough. Nonprofits and foundations need bold brands to maximize funding and advance social justice.
Too often for both doers and donors, missions and visions are scattered. The landscape crowded. Audiences and uniques unclear. Messaging and storytelling weak. Internal teams and priorities out of sync with the brand. Plus partnerships mismatched.
So $700 billion in annual global philanthropy isn’t maximized. Especially for locally-led orgs that go unseen, unheard, and underfunded. Then impact stalls.
And 85% of SDGs remain off track or reversing.
That’s why brand must come first:
✓ Theory of change (brand) precedes M&E and impact.
✓ Positioning (brand) precedes innovation and partnerships.
✓ Marketing communications (brand) precedes funding and advocacy.
✓ Strategic planning (brand) precedes HR, finance, and ops.
In reality, nonprofit and foundation leaders have countless necessary priorities.
But brand is first. And brands require precise, ongoing management. Not from junior comms staff. From the top leadership down.
Wait, you say: any social sector organization must be impact first.
That sounds good to the purists out there, but it simply can’t be the case. Think about it: even just your name is your brand. Every organization has at least a name before engaging the community it serves. And a name before approaching funders.
Hopefully, you even have a simple logo and pitch deck before you start doing your work. You don’t gather a few co-founders together, rush into the field, and serve. That would be volunteering.
So your brand exists from the moment you fill out a company registration form. That’s true whether you build on it from there or switch gears to funding and programs.
Which many sadly do.
Impact is also never immediate. Nobody has figured out how to solve poverty and injustice. And you have to gain the first customers or beneficiaries before impact can occur. Which requires communications.
In the private sector, leaders develop the brand from day one. That vision and value proposition are what early investors and customers are buying.
Even established corporations manage their brands first, only capitalizing on new markets and new income streams second.
I’m not arguing brand is the only thing that matters. We’re not naive, distant consultants — we’ve built six businesses ourselves, including Mighty Ally. So we know firsthand the competing priorities. But we are arguing it comes before anything else.
“Doers: until proven otherwise, your first priority is to learn to clearly, concisely, and compellingly communicate what it is that you do.”
KEVIN STARR, MULAGO FOUNDATION
Don’t nonprofits need funding to build a brand?
Brand is strategy; fundraising is execution.
Brand is the engine; fundraising is the fuel.
Brand is the story; fundraising is a chapter.
Brand is aspiration; fundraising is realization.
Brand is the reason; fundraising is the result.
Brand is the promise; fundraising is fulfillment.
Brand is the foundation; fundraising is the roof.
Brand is the message; fundraising is one medium.
Brand is differentiation; fundraising is the monetization.
Brand is an enduring goal; fundraising is a fleeting objective.
Brand is the source of trust; fundraising is the source of revenue.
Brand is the value proposition; fundraising is the value exchanged.
Brand is a long-term investment; fundraising is the short-term return.
Brand is an emotional connection; fundraising is a financial transaction.
Focus on fundraising, you win one at a time. Focus on brand, you win repeatedly.
Because a fundraising-centric approach keeps you in a never-ending cycle of pursuing single victories. The process restarts with each new potential donor. It’s a treadmill with no finish line.
Brand strategy allows you to create an enduring narrative. You pave the way for a domino effect of wins. And establish an attraction magnet that pulls in support again and again.
To be clear, both are critical. And inextricably linked. But brand first, funding second.
Our client Community Health Impact Coalition wisely prioritized their brand early on. During an evaluation just 2.5 years post inception, they identified brand communications as a rate-limiting step toward future funding. So after nine months of partnership with Mighty Ally, we launched the CHIC brand above in early 2023.
To get funding, be fundable. And findable.
It’s not fundraising that brings in money.
So stop chasing donations and do this instead:
Being fundable means knowing why you exist, what you do, where you’re going, who will do it, and how to get it done.
That’s your theory of change and strategic plan (your brand).
Being findable means occupying a distinct space in the minds of your audience, plus routinely communicating a brand promise.
That’s your positioning strategy and marketing communications (your brand).
Again — a nonprofit doesn’t maximize funding by just hiring more development staff, filling out grant applications, applying for awards, seeking foundation meetings, and creating donor prospect lists.
With a solid nonprofit brand in place, fundraising is merely delivering a known message to a known donor audience.
✓ You have conversations, not presentations.
✓ You only need the numbers: leads and conversions.
✓ Money comes to you via inbound referrals and reputation.
Without a bold brand, fundraising is always pitching — constantly guessing at the correct fit.
✓ You chase money.
✓ Little is known or in your control.
✓ You’re stuck in the nonprofit starvation cycle.
This broken dynamic between brand and funding is obvious. And simple to fix:
Put a person or team on it.
Almost every nonprofit has someone in charge of fundraising — with nobody leading the brand. It’s backward.
So if funding has stalled — if you’re stuck at $500k or even $5M per year in size — stop what you’re doing.
Stop the fundraising chase.
Stop the starvation cycle.
Gather your leadership team. And don’t leave the room until you figure out how to be fundable and findable — before anything else.
Because good brands cost some time and money, but bad brands cost a fortune.
“Communication is not an expense that reduces our ability to make grants. It is a strategic investment that allows us to magnify the impact of our grantmaking dollars, by attracting co-funders and energizing others to get involved.”
ANONYMOUS U.S. GRANTMAKER
What about foundations?
A foundation’s most valuable asset is not money.
Instead, your brand is your best investment.
Sounds radical. But our brand first, funding second philosophy applies to donors too. Not just doers.
“At their core, foundations and nonprofits are in the business of developing and advancing big, bold ideas,” says Sean Gibbons from The Communications Network. “If you want your ideas to take hold and win, you need to communicate and communicate well. It’s not an option anymore — it’s a necessity.”
In other words, foundations are changemakers too. They just have grantmaking as an intervention vs. direct implementation.
But without a bold brand, grantmaking is scattered. Far too often, foundations give across a wide range of issues. Sometimes it’s what the founders personally care about — whims, not strategic reasons. Far better is a tight focus and attacking a single issue or two.
Further, we’re in this together — doers, donors, and intermediaries. And if foundations believe their grantees need a robust theory of change, tight positioning, good comms, and solid strategic plan (brand) to maximize funding and advance social justice — foundations should have the same.
Not to mention the internal benefits. With a strong brand strategy, it’s simply easier for foundation staff to do their jobs. Like who to grant to, and not. And what post-investment support to provide. (Related side note: we see as much staff frustration and turnover at foundations as at nonprofits.)
And finally, a purposeful brand gives foundations more significant influence with peer funders and other donors — all in the interest of grantees.
Segal Family Foundation is the second largest U.S. grantmaker in Sub-Saharan Africa. And they’ve always been a brand exemplar within the Big Bang Philanthropy circle. Between their own communications plus the many post-investment support options, we believe they’re proving a brand first, funding second philosophy.
Evidence of our brand first point of view is proven in a funder study called Communication Matters, published in SSIR. It analyzed hundreds of grantmakers.
Here are some takeaways:
✓ 86% of foundations agree that when donors communicate about an issue, it helps their grantees work more boldly.
✓ Foundations rank as a goal of communication: 1, build nonprofit comms capacity; 2, build public will; 3, influence policy and practice.
✓ “We can amplify every dollar we spend if the programs we fund find more recognition, more partners, and can influence those who make policies that affect the people we serve.”
✓ “Tell me one major, successful social change initiative that did not have very strong communications as part of its success.”
Then here are three quick examples of how foundations are doing brand first, funding secondTM well:
✓ Acumen’s patient capital thesis, fellowships, Acumen Academy, plus Jacqueline Novogratz’s books and thought leadership. The brand is far more impactful than its ~$150 million in all-time investments. (For reference, MacKenzie Scott’s average single grant is larger than Acumen’s total giving in a year).
✓ Segal Family Foundation’s message of local leadership, the popular annual conference, African Visionary Fellowship, Social Impact Incubator, and in-house partnerships team driving tens of millions in follow-on funding. The brand does more good than its eight-figure annual giving.
✓ Pace Able Foundation’s hands-on advisory, startup expertise, servant leadership, Partner Stories blog, and co-funder collaborations. The brand effects exceed the millions in giving.
What’s the most important commonality in all three examples? The brand behind the grant.
In short: let the individual donors and high-net-worths be funding first. They don’t need a brand. Or to be fighting the good fight. They have day jobs. And they’re just the cash machine.
But if you have a staffed foundation, it’s your responsibility to go beyond the dollar.
Echidna Giving is another bold donor brand example.
Eight things we love about this foundation brand:
1. Laser-focused theory of change: girls education.
2. Cheeky brand personality: playful feel, serious subject.
3. Clever name & logo: breaks the XYZ Foundation mold.
4. Tight audiences: nonprofits, advocates, researchers & champions.
5. Compelling messaging: clear problem statement & impact.
6. Nice website: colorful, content written at 7th-grade level.
7. Targeted comms: newsletter, Twitter & resource library.
8. Transparent grantmaking strategy: not on whims.
Mighty Ally can take no credit here. But they’ve naturally demonstrated our inside-out Four A’s framework.
It’s a powerful example of a foundation building the brand behind the grant.
The messy donor/doer dynamic.
The brand-first philosophy has another hidden benefit for foundations: partnership.
Many foundations want to be partners with nonprofits. But many nonprofits only wish to be grantees of foundations.
It’s the tension between more than just money vs. just give us the money.
Lots of reasons for this lack of genuine partnership:
✓ Nonprofits with too many funders.
✓ Few foundations with proximate staff.
✓ Some nonprofits think they know it all.
✓ Some foundations think they know it all.
✓ Global North vs. Global South power imbalance.
✓ Often funders have off-putting applications and reporting.
Although the main reason, I propose, after hearing it from both sides: most foundations aren’t subject matter experts — unlike their nonprofit peers. In other words, foundations haven’t built the brand behind the grant.
Typically, funders are less focused than the average implementor. No theory of change or strategic plan. No tight positioning. No unique point of view or strong comms. And there’s a small staff with dozens (if not hundreds!) of grantees across countless SDGs and geographies.
So why blame nonprofits for only wanting to be your grantees?
If staffed foundations take a scattershot approach, they’ll get scattershot partnerships in return. And only be seen as a cash machine, like high-net-worth donors.
But there’s a path to true partnership before the grant:
Pattern matching →
Or: brand first, funding second.
“You have a brand whether you like it or not. Really the only choice you have is how actively you want to shape and manage that brand.”
Where to start?
Every nonprofit and foundation needs tight messaging, strong storytelling, sharp visuals, and cohesive comms to maximize funding and advance social justice.
But for organizations working at the early and growth stage, bold brands are built from the inside out. Before you can amplify your brand externally, you must first define your core ambition. Determine how to approach the world. And align your team internally around the brand.
We guide both doers and donors through this process using our Four A’s framework. Get started here.
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