An inside-out brand: the Four A’s framework.
Define your ambition, determine your approach, amplify your story, and align your organization — to maximize funding
Only one in 1,000 social ventures will scale beyond a small business. Despite impactful products and programs, most just can’t bring in enough income to grow.
The Mighty Ally theory of change begins with this sobering statistic. We’ve seen firsthand that most nonprofits and social enterprises are in perpetual survival mode — always chasing grants, donations, investment, and customers. Leaders obsess over fundraising and sales. It’s in their blood.
As critical as these skills are, fundraising and sales come second. First is knowing who you are at the core, where you fit in the market, what compelling story to tell, and how to turn strategy into action.
In the corporate world, brand is everything. And while there are successful nonprofit brands out there, most growth-stage social ventures lack the know-how to build their brands.
That’s why we created our Four A’s framework. A way to simplify and demystify the concept of brand. A set of interconnected disciplines and actionable tools to build a strong one.
We use it day-in and day-out with our growth-stage consulting clients. And we teach it via workshops and coaching for earlier-stage organizations through our training arm.
It’s a framework that drives both income and impact. And here’s the proof.
What is a brand?
Need a primer on what a brand is in the first place? Here’s a separate post.
Why brand matters.
Evidence is abundant about the power of brand. Yes, in the social sector too. For example, research in the book Breakthrough Nonprofit Branding found that strong brands:
Drive direction and higher performance
Change perceptions, preferences, and priorities
Strengthen capacity to attract, motivate, and retain staff/volunteers
Build deeper relationships with current supporters
Foster visionary ideas and innovation
Connect with new people and generate new resources
Hold the organization steady, even in turbulent times
In fact, the data in Breakthrough Nonprofit Branding reveals that a strong brand can be a nonprofit’s most valuable asset. And in most cases, brand accounts for more than 50 percent of a nonprofit organization’s market value.
Authors Cone and Daw tell us a new breed of supporters is holding nonprofits to higher standards — looking for outcomes commensurate with the time they commit and the dollars they invest. To stand out, nonprofits must continuously illustrate how support is making a difference. And increase their relevance through meaningful engagement between supporter and brand.
The Communications Network discovered in this excellent SSIR series that social ventures excelling at communications are stronger, smarter, and vastly more effective. Sean Gibbons insists comms is no longer an appendage to the work, but an integral part. “Strategic communications can revolutionize your organization and exponentially expand your impact,” he says.
There’s a wealth of insights in the book The Brand IDEA. It’s based on years of research from Nathalie Laidler-Kylander, a former Harvard Public Policy Lecturer and Managing Director at DRK Foundation. She talks about how internally, a strong brand creates cohesion, which results in increased capacity. And how externally, a clear brand image results in trust and impact.
Laidler-Kylander asserts that “when the organization’s values and mission are consistently aligned with its brand identity, and when this identity is consistently aligned with the external image, the nonprofit brand is able to establish a clear, distinct, consistent, and credible position in the minds of both internal and external stakeholders.”
In a sector where restricted funding is still the norm, how powerful is this statement from Peter Walker at Tufts University? “A strong brand allows you to acquire more resources and gives you the authority to have more freedom over how you use them.”
In Good to Great and the Social Sector, Jim Collins argues brand is more critical in the social sector than in the for-profit world. With nonprofits, donors provide financial resources to help achieve important, but often intangible, social goals. So, a nonprofit’s brand becomes a critical differentiator. Since purchasers cannot experience and evaluate the quality and value of a product or service directly, they must rely on trust to make the ‘purchase decision.’ Your brand provides this trust.
In the research paper The Impact of Nonprofit Brand Image and Typicality on Charitable Giving, French professors cite numerous studies drawing a positive correlation between a strong brand personality and fundraising. The comprehensive literature review in Brand Equity for Nonprofit Organizations concludes the social sector “has become very competitive and this has generated in nonprofit organizations the need to differentiate and create a brand as well as manage brand equity.”
The case for brand is clear. Many leaders can understand the concept in theory. But growth-stage social ventures have long lacked the practical framework and tools to build an authentic, bold brand.
“As nonprofits have grown in number and importance, the charitable marketplace has become more competitive. Donors are becoming more selective and discriminating. Individuals, corporations, foundations, and government all are basing funding decisions on more complex criteria. Building a breakthrough brand is the new nonprofit imperative.”
CAROL CONE & JOCELYNE DAW
Our Four A’s framework.
Every nonprofit and social enterprise wants to generate more income. And better marketing communications is often the solution. But our Four A’s framework takes clients two steps back before getting into marcom. Then one step after to create structures that support their aims.
It builds a strong brand, from the inside out.
First, a brand starts with your ambition, then layers on your approach, and builds out from there. Inside-out. Second, brand management requires you to align your brand internally and amplify it externally over time. Inside and outside the organization.
The Four A’s consists of theory of change (ambition), positioning strategy (approach), marketing communications (amplify), and strategic planning (align). No piece of the brand puzzle is complete without the other.
THEORY OF CHANGE
A theory of change is a social venture’s most important document. Unless you produce a tangible product a customer is buying, your theory of change is what donors are investing in. Either way, what you’re ‘selling’ is impact-first. It’s your core ambition.
This document is critical to creating sustained impact and raising money alike. Because first, it’s a comprehensive description of how and why a desired change is expected to happen. But second, it helps you drive income too. A good reason and vision motivate people. A tight mission keeps you focused and creates efficiencies. And clear pathways influence fundraising targets.
Not to mention, the theory of change is the first step in your marketing communications. In our Four A’s framework, we directly apply elements of the theory of change in places like messaging, pitch decks, and website strategy. Typically, unclear comms is the result of an unclear theory of change.
We define a theory of change through three sections (the need, the work, the results) and 15 total elements within:
Even in the social sector — where meaning and motivation abound — it’s important for organizations to rally around a singular greater ambition. If you set a clear vision, you will ultimately find the right strategy. But if you don’t have a clear vision, no strategy will save you.
“If you were a screenwriter, you build a storyboard. If you were a teacher, you draft a curriculum plan for the year. If you were a CFO, you build a financial model that projects how you think money will flow. For impact professionals, building a theory of change can help you map out what you’ll need to achieve over time in order to reach both your short-term and long-term goals.”
Positioning strategy is the deliberate process by which your organization identifies strengths, assesses gaps in the landscape, and chooses how to present itself to audiences and enter the marketplace. Or, your brand’s approach.
Think of perfect positioning as the intersection of what you’re good at + what funders will support + what other organizations aren’t doing + what the world needs.
Ultimately, good positioning allows you to maximize your organization’s income and impact. It does this in three key ways. Attracting and increasing funding. Focusing teams. Plus finding collaboration opportunities.
Positioning is an art, not a science. Nailing it requires deciding what makes you unique, knowing your audience, and showing your brand personality.
We determine positioning strategy through three sections (landscape, positioning, personality) and 10 total elements within:
Landscape: SWOT and competitors/collaborators.
Positioning: three uniques, priority audiences, personas, and promises.
Personality: character, traits, style, and tradition.
For your stakeholders, funders, prospects, partners, employees, supporters, and even beneficiaries… you are not the only option. You compete in some way for time, attention, investment, sales, grants, awards, or employees. Positioning strategy is where you pair your promises to an audience’s needs.
“Positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect. A product is something made in a factory. A brand is something made in the mind. To be successful today, you have to build brands, not products.”
With the inside of your brand in place, you can confidently begin to amplify your story to the outer world — with marketing communications. And to make smart decisions about how and where to speak while communicating your value.
Your words will resonate, because they are the final extension of your carefully crafted brand. Not a false veneer hiding a distracted, disjointed, or disingenuous organization.
Insufficient or ineffective marcom is usually the primary symptom driving organizations to seek help with brand. The irony is: this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
At the highest level, marcom is saying the right things to the right people in the right places at the right time to drive the right results. It can encapsulate several different strategies and tactics.
Our marcom work is the meatiest of anything we do. It includes the following five elements: messaging and storytelling, visual identity, website strategy, channels, and corporate partnerships:
Messaging & storytelling: tagline, elevator pitch, message map, public narrative, boilerplate, impact evidence, and word bank.
Visual identity: logo, colors, typography, iconography, photography, brand guidelines, stationery, and templates.
Website strategy: call-to-action, audience goals, homepage wireframe, sitemap pages, and budget.
Fundraising & sales channels: digital, content, ads, PR, physical marketing, grassroots, and events.
Corporate partnerships: people, platform, philanthropy, and product.
This is where many social sector orgs miss the mark. Many have a compelling theory of change. But their exterior is weak — their message is confusing, website and comms materials dated, and there’s no cohesive plan for driving awareness and interest with audiences.
This results in a lack of funding or sales. Sadly, an organization could be driving great impact. But when a ‘tree falls in the woods,’ the org’s growth stagnates.
“Communications is no longer an appendage to the work, but an integral part. In other words, it is the work. Halting climate change. Eradicating disease. Lifting up the arts. Ending poverty. At their core, foundations and nonprofits are in the business of developing and advancing big, bold ideas. 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.”
A strategic plan is the way to align your brand internally — as you tell your story externally. What is a strat plan for? You can’t clean water with it. It doesn’t cure illness. Nor does it educate a child. It’s words on a page. Otherwise known as communications. A strategic plan is a comms tool, plain and simple. Some even call it internal branding.
Strategic planning aligns your team, priorities, and rhythms around your ambition and approach. That’s it.
Defining ‘the work’ within your theory of change is only the start. You also have to do said work. Your ambition must become action.
One prominent family foundation told us the most common reason they don’t invest is they don’t believe the organization can pull off its claims. Why cast a grand vision without taking calculated steps to achieve it?
No strat plan standard exists for nonprofits and social enterprises. So we took inspiration from the private sector and contextualized these models for growth-stage social ventures — grouping 10 key elements into three sections (team, priorities, and rhythms):
Team: core values, team analyzer, and accountability chart.
Priorities: winning moves, 3-year picture, annual goals, and quarterly rocks.
Rhythms: proven process, internal comms, and KPIs.
Our strat planning process can be summarized in three quotes. “First who, then what” … “It’s more important to do the right thing than to do things right” … “Goals without routines are wishes; routines without goals are aimless.” In modern, agile planning, you’re mostly focused on two points: where you want to be 10 to 25 years from now and what you have to do in the next 90 days. Everything else is just a bridge in between.
“Covid proved more than ever that the traditional five-year strat plan is futile. Organizations need a 21st century replacement — one that respects uncertainty as the norm and values the ability to change as a competitive advantage.”
The time is now.
Corporates live and die by their brands — in a private sector where companies spend $1 trillion on marketing globally. And if you look at the 990s of big NGOs — think Red Cross or Mercy Corps — they invest heavily in salaries for brand leaders and hundreds of thousands on comms firms. But with growth-stage nonprofits and social enterprises, brand takes a back seat.
Research in The Brand IDEA showed most nonprofits “devote little time, energy and care to branding” or they “do not effectively utilize and manage their brands.” It concludes that “brand management is neglected in nonprofit organizations because marketing itself is seen as a limited range of activities, mainly concerned with fundraising.”
Every organization needs some sort of brand during the startup phase. But as they hit $500k or so in annual turnover, they shift almost exclusively to programs, M&E, fundraising, and staffing. That’s when people create theories of change and strategic plans in independent processes. Or they go straight into comms, without a positioning strategy. Leaders think comms can be delegated to an intern or fellow. And it’s not until they get stuck — typically between $1M and $5M in size — that they realize the brand pain.
But this is changing. The Rockefeller Foundation recognized in 2010 that brand management in the nonprofit sector and interest in nonprofit brands were at a tipping point.
Amazon serves more than 80,000 books if you search for “brand” — some dating back to the Madmen era of the 1950s. There are less than 20 for “nonprofit brand” or “branding” — but all were published in the last two decades. There’s clearly momentum.
Back to The Brand IDEA — analysts studied 70 successful nonprofits that are managing their brands to further their missions. In the findings, the authors describe an “essential paradigm shift” in the nonprofit sector. A sector characterized by a growing number of players, fewer funding opportunities, and increasing social needs. And a shift where changemakers are now using brand strategy to create cohesion and consistency, transform patrons into brand ambassadors, and increase both reach and impact.
Regardless of the growing awareness, you can’t build a brand overnight. Not by reading any one blog post or book. It requires years of cultivation by your leaders, team, and constituents in different ways.
Remember this tough love from Alan Mitchell: “brands are not built by a separate activity called brand building any more than races are won by a separate activity called winning.” In other words, it’s a journey — not a destination. A process, not an event.
So the time to begin is now.
“Rather than focusing on fundraising as the objective of the brand, the new paradigm places brand in service of the mission and social impact. Instead of having responsibility for the brand reside within the communications department, responsibility for the brand as a key strategic asset resides with the entire executive team and the board. Brand management is everyone’s job.”