Why early-stage ventures can't ignore brand building.
Laying strong brand roots to support future flourishing
Next time you go outside, stand underneath a tree and look up.
If the tree is healthy, you’ll see an expanse of foliage. A main trunk, branches, countless smaller offshoots and leaves. All positioned for prime exposure to the sun, the tree’s source of energy to power growth. The limbs are arranged to maximize resilience. And there may be seeds or flowers, ready for replication.
Now look down.
Imagine you could instantly dissolve the earth under your feet, revealing the vast network of roots. The trunk is extended below ground as a strong taproot — anchoring the tree to its spot. The roots spread out wide around you, almost mirroring the canopy overhead. As the foliage above fights for sunlight, the roots stretch their reach for water to send skyward and hydrate the hard-working leaves.
The growth of a tree is an apt way to think about how healthy nonprofits form and flourish. Early-stage startups will flounder if they aren’t well-rooted. And as an organization grows, they need the proper external visibility to garner attention and gather resources.
For young trees — and young organizations — outward expansion can’t outpace the growth of deep, strong roots. At this point, the tree and brand might not look like much to those on the outside. But there’s a flurry of activity underneath the surface, preparing for future growth.
And with strong roots set, it becomes time to shift attention to branching out. Attracting attention and resources to fuel expansion, replication, and longevity.
A stage-by-stage comparison.
We think of brand as this same critical combination of internal alignment (stable roots nearly invisible) and external amplification (flourishing limbs for the world to see). So brand is important for any nonprofit, at any point in their existence. Building a strong one simply looks different over time. Just like a tree looks different as it grows.
But we see early-stage nonprofits ignoring this critical discipline of brand, in favor of focus on products, programs, and funding alone. They (and some funders too!) find it unnecessary for a startup. That they can craft a sexy pitch deck and run a social media campaign to get by. Or that they’ll get to brand work later, once they’ve grown.
While it’s often too late to develop and manage a holistic brand, it’s never too early. Because strong roots precede external flourishing.
Here’s how a brand differs — but still greatly matters — for early-stage and growth-stage nonprofits.
Theory of change
Documenting the need, your work, and the desired results of your ambition — for an invaluable precursor to fundraising, M&E, staffing, and replication.
AS A STARTUP
A theory of change serves as a written hypothesis of your ambition. It’s still just a set of assumptions you’re aiming to prove or disprove. But a critical brand asset to raise seed capital for the journey ahead. It’s a map, or a guide to the mountaintop where you’re heading in the future. And while the need for your efforts and the desired results of your model should be set at this early stage, the messy middle of the work itself remains fluid. So you should update this document often as the mission solidifies.
AS A GROWING ORGANIZATION
A theory of change communicates your proven theory of change. A GPS for where you are today. It’s a fundraising tool that describes the work that works, and creates confidence for investors. Because the model is now set in stone, it forces discipline for replication as your team grows — no more mission creep. The model feeds M&E with the outputs and outcomes to be measured. And allows partners with complementary interventions to understand your mission clearly and how they plug in.
Reviewing internal and external realities to lock down your unique approach — so your brand can cut through the noise and differentiate.
FOR EARLY VENTURES
Your positioning strategy helps identify possible differentiators, potential audiences, and plausible value propositions. Your positioning will likely change over time. But this strategy gives you a starting point to evaluate competitors, know your personas, and develop your initial go-to-market strategy. Positioning also forces you to create products and programs that meet real customer/beneficiary pains and gains. If your brand finds more noise than gaps in the landscape, go back to the drawing board (er, impact model) to design again.
AT GROWTH STAGE
Positioning strategy cements what makes you unique, who you’re targeting, and how to deliver brand promises. These value props have evolved from features, to advantages, to benefits. With this in-depth understanding of how you’ll approach the world, you can navigate competitors and exploit gaps in the market. And with your original products and programs in place, tight positioning gives you the framework and courage to say “no” more often as you grow, in order to say “yes” to opportunities within your niche.
Crafting strategies to amplify your story in a clear, compelling way — targeting and turning audiences into supporters of your brand.
WITH EARLY-STAGE ORGANIZATIONS
Marcom is experimental, testing different messaging and channels that may drive donations and sales. You have to focus on a couple of outlets, but those channels rotate over time as some pan out and others don’t. In other words, you’re planting seeds that may or may not sprout. Your visual identity should be in place, but likely just the beginning of a robust brand system to come as your personality emerges. And your digital footprint is small and simple, easy to update as your impact model, positioning, and messaging evolve.
FOR GROWING VENTURES
Marcom becomes more complex. Your limbs are extending, flowers and brand blooming. Basic messaging evolves into storytelling and narratives. You still prioritize the top two channels to reach audiences, but you’re now using in-depth analytics to test variables and track success instead of just guessing at what sticks. The visual system matures based on the personality you’ve become. And corporate partnerships become a key to amplify your brand — now that your model and positioning have grown, private sector brands help you reach new audiences.
Aligning leadership, people, priorities, rhythms, and data around your brand — turning vision into action into peak performance and resiliency.
IN STARTUP MODE
Strategic planning is all about establishing a sturdy foundation (or roots) for the future. You’re actioning your vision primarily through a leadership team and small staff of people. Not yet a rigid set of structures like priorities, rhythms, and data. Because the mission remains agile. But you’re at least setting in place systems and ways of working that will align the brand for years to come. And convince funders there’s a plan in place to handle growth.
AS A SCALING ENTERPRISE
Strategic planning becomes the single most important factor to build the brand. You know what you do, why and where you do it, who you do it for. Now you’re firming up how you do it. Leadership teams are mature, you’ve got the right people in the right seats, and structure matters more than ever. No more winging it. No more passes from funders. It’s time to drive organizational excellence to match your excellent products and programs.
A carefully tended brand thrives.
Only the smallest percentage of seeds will ever take root and sprout. Just as only one in 1,000 nonprofits will ever grow beyond a small business. The landscape is tough. Competition over limited resources abounds. There’s an endless struggle to be seen, heard, and recognized. And countless components to consider when building a successful organization.
An early focus on brand isn’t a guarantee of success. But it can make growth smoother, healthier, and more predictable. It can’t be an afterthought, attempted once you’ve figured out the rest or elevated when you’re in desperate need of funding or sales.
That’s why we say: brand first, funding second.
Nor is brand ever complete, static, or unimportant. It requires careful tending through growth and scale. Because focus may shift and sharpen as you increase in confidence and realize a larger reach.
Regardless of your organizational stage, brand requires attention. From the inside out. From roots to treetops. Without it, you can’t take root and thrive. Or grow and scale. Or realize your ultimate impact.
And a world without your brand? A sad and barren one indeed.
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Further reading on the Four A’s.
See the three ways we engage.