What Non-Profits Should Consider When Hiring a Branding Agency


The understood meaning of a brand has changed significantly in the last 10 years. It’s now come to mean the entire “personality” of your organization. How it looks, how it functions, what it puts out into the world. Whether your organization is for- or non-profit, the importance of a brand can’t be overstated.

Just as people won’t be compelled to buy from a company they don’t know or trust, people will not be compelled to donate to a non-profit that doesn’t have the right “personality” as told through their branding.

Most organizations empirically understand this. Many try to introduce the marketing and journalistic consistency that creates a brand presence by tasking their communications personnel to handle their brand. Usually, this comes with mixed results until the organization relents and commits to a large capital project to define or overhaul their brand. When organizations undergo this kind of initiative and decide to hire a branding agency, they’re faced with thousands of potential agencies and a list of options from those agencies that could result in a huge range of costs.

Developing your brand

What exactly is your organization looking to accomplish through a branding agency? A new visual brand is something very different from brand guidelines or helping your organization's positioning in public forums. What are the deliverables that you need? A new logo? A new website? Will your social media presence need to be redesigned? Will the agency need to produce a set of brand guidelines that dictate how your brand will be positioned in the future? Make sure your organization produces a clear list of requirements and associated items that you will need from your agency.

Too often, organizations won’t have a clear understanding of what they’ll walk away from engagement with.

To RFP or not RFP, that is the question

The first major decision a non-profit will face in the selection process is whether or not to put out a Request for Proposal. There are good reasons for and against RFPs that your organization will have to consider. RFPs (at least good ones) are time consuming and difficult to create. Whatsmore, they’re time consuming and difficult to respond to. This might exclude some fantastic agencies from your bidding process since sought-after agencies sometimes chose not to respond to RFPs. The best agencies often don't need RFPs to keep their businesses humming.

Non-profits should also be careful not to fully trust RFP responses. Agencies that do choose to respond to an RFP may decide to “mail in” their response, resulting in boilerplate strategy that isn’t specific to your non-profit and what you’re trying to accomplish. Additionally, price quotes can be quite varied, making it hard to determine who’s the best fit. If one organization is $10,000 less than another, are they just providing less material and are those materials something that you can live without? Will junior staff be handling your project at one agency versus more senior professionals at another? Be sure to compare “apples to apples.”

Ultimately, your organization will need to decide if you should put out a Request For Proposal. I often recommend finding two branding agencies through referrals and then holding “discovery” calls with those organizations.

In the discovery calls, be sure to review what kinds of organizations the agency has helped in the past. Are those organizations like your own? What is their process like - how is work submitted and reviewed? What is their general timeline? How will both organizations know if the branding is successful? Are there metrics you are looking to track? Will there be any post-project training or support?

And perhaps most importantly, look at a potential agency’s own branding. Is it good? Does it resonate with you?

What a branding agency does

With your shortlist in hand, it’s time to start comparing the different agencies to understand their process and whether it will work for your non-profit. In order to accurately represent your organization, a branding agency will need to be especially adept at teasing out what it is that makes your non-profit unique. Always begin your potential engagement by asking how an agency will collect the information that they need to develop your brand. Do they hold an in-depth discovery session? What documents are produced in the discovery process? What is the process for sign-off on those documents? How many iterations of those documents are included? The last thing your non-profit needs is to encounter high added costs due to changes you request when a document or idea needs a revision.

It’s also important to get at least some level of insight into how much thinking and understanding an agency does about your specific mission. It’s not possible for a branding agency to translate your organization’s personality without really understanding it themselves. It’s sometimes appropriate for agencies to produce mission and vision statements for an organization in order to get alignment with the qualities of a non-profit and the values that the organization wants to build.

An agency should know about your non-profit’s audience. There isn’t a way to accurately describe your differentiators as a non-profit entity unless the agency is fully aware of what your audience is interested in and what’s compelling about your organization.

Getting Your Brand Right

Trusting your brand to anyone can be an intimidating process. Putting the wrong messaging out into the world can have lasting implications for your non-profit and that understandably makes some organizations hesitant to make any changes at all to their brand. With a thoughtful and methodical approach and the right set of questions, a non-profit can confidently engage a branding agency to help evolve their brand to one that donors know and trust.