UPDATED as of 1/16/2018

Non-profits sometimes get a bad rap. As someone who has worked in the non-profit sector, I’m very well aware of a few issues that non-profits face when it comes to running a business, particularly when it comes to branding themselves effectively. Sometimes, when it comes to branding themselves, money is in one way, shape or form, connected to the branding mistakes that non-profits make.

I admit that cost can be a deterrent, but it is not and should not be at the forefront in the inability to create a great brand. And yet, money, or lack thereof, usually is. While money is definitely tied to these brand marketing mistakes, there are other ways that non-profits stumble upon when it comes to branding. In this post, I’ll be exploring 5 branding mistakes that I’ve seen happen from non-profit organizations and solutions that can help alleviate these mistakes.

Mistake #1: Designing Your Own Logo and Brand Identity


Let me borrow this phrase from The Beastie Boys for a little bit. For non-profit employees, board and investors: how do you want others to perceive your company, and how do you want to be portrayed to them?

This is very fitting from a design perspective (among others). What do you want out of your brand identity and design? Recognition. Missional. Purposeful. Awesomeness.

Your non-profit organization needs to be memorable across the board: from its mission and values to its culture and its employees. Your brand identity should be no different.

Designing your own logo and brand identity is not the best way to get your organization to reach a higher branding level, but it will definitely get your organization recognized: for the wrong reasons…

Sure, you can be your own junior graphic designer and design your own logo and brand. But please, don’t let clipart be your favorite word and Microsoft Paint be your tool of choice.

More importantly, if you do want to/tried to design your own logo and brand, do consider your designs as “DRAFTS.” There’s more to a logo and brand than just the look and feel.

Logos and branding takes considerable thought and research to perfect the way a user sees your company. It takes hours of digging deep, translating core values and purpose into a single entity that speaks volumes.

A picture says a thousand words, and if your logo design is presented awfully or awkwardly to your potential customers, it will say a lot about your company that can be difficult to remedy in the long-term.

SO WATCHA WATCHA WATCHA WANT (from your audience)

Why designing your own logo and brand is a bad idea? Simply put, you cannot be half-assed about your brand. As a non-profit, a poorly thought-out design would hurt your company more than you know. It can hurt your visibility, your reputation, your mission and ultimately your pocket.

Case in point, you should consider Gap’s fiasco with their brand identity. IMHO, theirs would be a great case of branding What Not To Do. If Stacy and Clinton (from What Not To Wear) were brand marketing gurus, they would have been all over Gap.

Gap is a good company. Gap had something good, something that most everyone acknowledged and responded to, and they thought that changing their identity would make them more recognizable by their customers, be more modern, or whatever reason they had, good or bad.

The results? The public reacted horribly to the change. Gap lost customers, lost respect from its peers, received tons of feedback from designers and brand marketers all over the world and probably lost market share.

They shamefully went back to the drawing board and “reinvented” themselves by going back to their previous logo.

Illustrating Gap’s attempt is not about the fact that they had professional designers create their brand: rather, it’s about the relationships between customers and company, and how those customers respond to a brand.

Gatorade famously termed the quote “Image is Nothing. Thirst is Everything.”

In brand design and marketing, image is not nothing, but can be everything. Image personifies your company’s character, values, and mission that makes your company stand out of the crowd.

Image affects your mission work, your perspectives, and how you are perceived.

Image affects workers, customers and company growth. Image ultimately affects revenue and sales. In order to get what you want out of your audience, it starts with the right branding solution for your organization.

Solution: Your creative ideas + a designer’s expertise = Win/Win Situation

There are a handful of ways to eliminate brand design failure, and it may not even involve spending your limited financial resources.

Websites like Catchafire are great for getting professionals to volunteer their time and efforts to help non-profits.

I know; thanks to Catchafire, I am in the process of finalizing a conference logo for the North Carolina Community Health Center Association.

Some may not agree about this, but Craigslist is also another website that can be used to get volunteers to help your organization get branded.

Modern job websites like AuthenticJobs.com, Behance or Coroflot are great resources to get design professionals to work on a pro bono scale. If those websites aren’t your bag, try generating interest from design students and/or partnering with design schools to help you achieve your brand goals. Art Institutes can provide opportunities for their students to work in real-life professional scenarios, build their portfolio, and at the same time give back to their communities.

You can even make them your organization’s design intern, whom you can offer professional experience in the non-profit sector and still help them grow in their career.

Hiring an agency or freelancer that wants to/can work with non-profit organizations can be a challenge, but they’re certainly to be found.

This is where money can be the deal breaker for both sides of the party, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Providing an agency or freelancer/consultant with long-term business can be a suitable asset in your favor.

Hiring a trusted agency as your agency of record can also garner mutual business and networking prospects, and can be a definite win-win situation for both parties.

Mistake #2: Your website is redirected to someone else’s website folder.

Why am I harping about websites being redirected to someone else’s folder? Should non-profits care about this?


Your logo is the identity of your brand, and your website is just as much part of that identity as is the logo. By protecting your website, you are also protecting your logo and your brand.

Conversely, not protecting your site leads to bad brand marketing mistakes and brand awareness.


Here’s an example: This non-profit organization (NAME WITHHELD TO PROTECT THEM) has a website and domain name, and recruited volunteers to create their web design (and maybe branding) for them.

[http://samplenonprofit.org] hosted by [http://samplehostingcompany.com]

Another freelancer or agency steps in and tells them that they can save money by getting rid of their hosting and just keeping the domain name.

Agency transfers the non-profit’s site from the hosting company into a folder under that agency’s domain.

[http://samplenonprofit.org] redirects to [http://agencywebsite.com/samplenonprofit]

Why would a non-profit redirect their site to someone else’s site? Is it the money or lack thereof? Is it the time in investing on the site? Is it the maintenance and hassles of the site?

It seems like a Win-Win for both parties, right? Non-profit saves cash, agency gets another client. But who doesn’t really win? THE NON-PROFIT and THEIR BRAND.


When it comes to marketing, especially brand marketing, it’s important to know that your site should be consistently branded throughout the user experience.

Redirecting a brand site to another brand site is not a great brand marketing tactic, nor does it promote exceptional user experience.

Rather, it creates Brand Confusion. A user typing in http://samplenonprofit.org will be directed to someone else’s URL, even if the page looks like the non-profit they were trying to go to.

Are the non-profit’s URL and brand in sync together? No. Will the redirect create a strong brand identity awareness for the non-profit?

Most likely not.

Will it create a strong brand identity awareness for the freelancer or agency? Most likely.

That’s not even talking about any SEO or digital marketing initiatives associated with the brand marketing redirect.

Think of how the lowest common denominator user might act or think. Will they think something along this line: “I’m at [non-profit’s] site, but their URL is [http://agencywebsite.com/samplenonprofit]. Did I go to the right site?”

A website is an investment, and if it’s not investing in money, it’s investing in time and effort, which affects money. Domain names are dirt cheap nowadays, and hosting is growing more flexible and cheaper as of late.

Hosting companies like 1and1, Rackspace, HostGator and BlueHost have acknowledged that small businesses need affordable websites, and they’re providing those businesses top-notch caliber based on their respective needs.

Solution: Take the time to Invest In Your Brand

I understand that it can be difficult to get a website or hosting, especially if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.

If you’re not familiar with the hosting industry, it can just feel like you’re hearing a different language than what you’re used to.

But it should not be that difficult to research more about these issues, and taking the time to prepare yourself for the task at hand. Assuming that you already have a great person to do the design for you, the next step is to determine the approach of your website.

Your website should be practical and useful for both short-term and long-term. WordPress sites (both self-hosted and hosted at WordPress.com) are the most common types of sites out there that you can use and create for either free or relatively cheap.

For WordPress users hosting their site on WordPress.com, it doesn’t even cost anything other than the time and energy to set up your site. You can even get your domain with them for free.

For hosting, there are a plethora of VERY CHEAP hosting companies out there (some good, some bad). If you’re going to use WordPress for your site, and you want to host it at an actual hosting company, I suggest HostGator and BlueHost for hosting.

They’re very affordable, friendly and have great customer service.

Their platforms are well-known for hosting WordPress sites, and can help you configure it for you.

They even have a domain service where you can purchase your domain and hosting as a package.

My own hosting company, HostGator, shells out a web hosting package starting under $4 a month, for a total of less than $50 a year. Add a domain name (which is most often free if buying it in a package), and that total price (sans taxes) would be around $60-$70 a year. UPDATE: I’m currently trying to figure out if Hostgator is even worth my time at this point. I’m determined to switch to a new hosting company, preferably BlueHost or maybe through Git.

Those web packages are great for hosting WordPress sites, which are easy to use and implement, and come with hosting support and other technical goodies that you may not even understand what they are for.

Web Hosting. Seventy Dollars A Year.

If investing in a web hosting and domain name only costs that much per year, then it should be a no-brainer to invest in cheap[er] hosting and domain package that you can use to continually brand your company.

Your non-profit does not need to redirect its precious brand to someone else’s property just to save a few bucks. You’re only hurting yourself, your business and your presence, which can hurt the effectiveness of your mission.

In addition, take the time to invest in your people when it comes to your brand. If the knowledge of updating your content and/or website is a bit tough, then take the time to invest in them to make it work for you.

There are free classes online for specific types of design, content marketing, content management, and more. It just takes some time and effort to do so.

Mistake #3: Managing Projects Poorly

The first two mistakes focuses on the external, customer-facing part of logo design and brand marketing. This next mistake focuses on the internal structure that determines how that design and brand is forged and presented.

Marketers get branding from an outside perspective, but it is within the internal foundation that makes or breaks the true essence of the brand.

When I think about project management, I think about milestones, deadlines, tactics, lists, actionable items and so forth; those that collectively affect the ultimate goal of the project.

In order to really get the most out of project management, you have to know [at least some of] the methodology behind it.

Best practices in project management are crucial in developing the right product and the right brand. Best practices shape and mold the development of a product, increases cooperation of internal resources, minimizes noise, and helps both teams and company focus on the primary tasks at hand.

Best practices prefers better results over faster pushes, and better products over mediocre ones. Failure to appropriate best practices in the product can lead to bad results, sometimes even disastrous ones.

The faster we get to the final product, the better we are in getting more opportunities for turning a profit. 

That’s the mentality that I saw in previous non-profit work. One of the key elements that the product would help solve is poor membership retention and increasingly declining members.

While it is quite understandable in wanting to see results and profit from your product, cutting vital processes and procedures to create speed isn’t going to result in a great product upon launch time.

In fact, the opposite happened.

The company cut corners in best practices, which led to the uncovering of bad business processes and internal patchwork that required more patchwork to fix.

In trying to cut the corners, I found out that their financial procedures and internal company regulations were outdated; as in their financial and business bylaws are still stuck in the 1860s and 1930s. Not exactly the best in running a modern-day business.

This affected membership payment gateway funnels, revenue stream generation and online payments, to name a few.

Membership funnels are convoluted to say at best, where too many exceptions to the rule were in place to get people to become members. This caused a strain on the internal membership funneling and retention efforts, and definitely has prevented a strong membership retention from its members.

Internal structure on membership retention was askew, and these important elements were knowingly pushed aside (for whatever reason) in order to launch the product in time for their billing cycle.

Why is project management and best practices worth considering? Because these are the checks and balances and quality control of your product, and that product is ultimately your brand.

Poor project management knowledge and best practices implementation doesn’t make your brand and your product better; it leads to a declining demand and less-than-favorable perspective of your brand.

Then the company has to work harder to appease and satisfy existing members to prevent them from leaving, all the while looking for solutions to increase demand when they could look internally to their best practices to help them achieve those goals.

Solution: Learn how to conduct project management effectively

In this day and age, there is no excuse for not learning project management basics and fundamentals, especially if you’re a non-profit organization.

The internet is full of websites that can teach project management for free or for a small fee. As a non-profit, you may even qualify to get your fees waived by certain companies and organizations.

It doesn’t hurt to ask around or search online, but it will hurt more if you don’t want to act. While the internet does show options, there are companies that provided web-based project management tools for your organization.

There are also apps for smartphones and tablets that can leverage the power of project management in the palm of your hands. Smartphone or tablet apps can be more beneficial for some non-profits, as these allow them to be more mobile and accessible throughout their [hectic] professional lifestyle.

Sadly, in my experience, use of smartphones and tablets were a hindsight to the non-profits I worked for.

If apps and internet companies aren’t your thing, what about good old fashioned Excel-based project management? I know that some of my friends are so tech-centered that they won’t even consider Excel spreadsheets.

But being strapped for cash doesn’t necessarily mean that Excel is a bad product. Actually, you should be learning how to use Excel anyway, since using Excel for project management can help you learn spreadsheet work and get your feet wet in Project Management 101.

Mistake #4: Poorly conducted marketing campaigns.


The world of marketing is already too fast to keep up with, and you have to be consistently on top of the game in order to get the best results possible for your company.

What about non-profits?

I can’t say that all of them are up to speed on all of marketing strategies and tactics, and I know that not all of them are so ignorant that they don’t know what best practices in marketing strategies look like either.

But best practices aren’t just talk, it’s also about the walk. Here’s a few examples of poor marketing strategies from non-profits I’ve seen:

Email Marketing

  • Using an old school email marketing software to send email campaigns, storing bounces and unsubscribes in an Outlook folder that internal staff didn’t do anything about. This happened for at least 5-6 years, if not more.
  • Using an old school email marketing software that was so limited in its functionality and very convoluted to work with that basic things like creating/modifying content, inserting CTAs, and previewing emails took 3 people to insert/edit, and at least a few days minimum to check and preview before sending the campaigns.
  • Using an old school email marketing software that produced undesirable email designs and retention results. No dummy designs – you have to know straight HTML. A/B and Multivariate testing was not in the vocabulary of the software, nor was it of the internal staff. Very limited metrics were provided by the software, and internal staff could not do much with the metrics to take actionable courses.
  • Using an old school email marketing software that ultimately led to the non-profit’s email domain address being blocked by Yahoo!, AOL (Yes, THAT AOL) and a few other email domains.

Social Media/PR

  • Using social media to push information to their industry – in a one-way communication mentality.
  • Social media posts were about other people’s work and not their own.
  • Limited drive-backs to website for conversions. Website didn’t have much conversion power to begin with.
  • Using social media without analytics, or not using posts or updates based on metrics. Internal staff didn’t understand social listening tools or metric analytics.

Print Marketing

  • No landing pages designed for print marketing collateral, so it was very difficult to analyze results and make actionable responses.

Digital Marketing

  • SEO is introduced as a passing conversation, but not taken into consideration. Internal staff does not know/did not have the time/do not have the capacity to explore SEO and adapt it to their marketing campaigns.
  • Marketing teams and C-Level execs had limited understanding of analytics, and basics of metrics like traffic and pageviews are as far as they go.
  • Integrated marketing is not used. Each marketing project is a collateral and project of its own, but not necessarily integrated well to the point of real value.

Solution: Invest in your internal staff to develop the skill set for today’s marketing needs

I understand that money/time is going to be a key factor in this (just like in everything else).

How many professional marketers out there with well-qualified portfolios and get paid $$$ by other companies are going to jump ship and take on a $50K Director of Marketing for a non-profit with internal issues?

Not many.

But if there aren’t any that would be lured to the company, then invest in what you already have to help your employees, and your company, grow.

The CEO shouldn’t be taking on the role of Director of Marketing, especially if their version of marketing is old school. Take your marketing staff and let them learn modern day business and marketing strategies and tactics.

The internet is wide open for free and inexpensive classes.

Develop relationships with local best-in-class professionals that can serve as mentors to your staff. It’s not just a “keep abreast with the latest and greatest” resume crap – it’s an ongoing investment that can reap results for your company.

If that is too much for any company to consider, try hiring consultants or agencies who are willing to work with your budget. There are tons of them out there who work specifically with non-profits and smaller budgets, and I’m sure they would be more than happy to help your business grow.

If all else fails, be the person that continuously grows. Read online blogs that cater to digital marketing (as a whole), and to specific segments in social media, SEO/SEM, paid ads, inbound marketing, email marketing, content marketing and more.

Learn how to read, analyze and respond to analytics – Google’s, Bing’s and other social or search analytic tools.

Analytics and behavioral marketing will help you look into your work, figure out what you’re doing right (or wrong), and help you adjust so that your bottom line increases.

Learn what social listening can do for your company, and infuse that with all the other marketing campaigns you’re working on.

More importantly, learn the ins and outs of integrated marketing.

Mistake #5: Seeing non-profits as non-business


We’re not a fortune company. We’re a non-profit organization.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, I would be rich.

This was very prevalent in my previous company and the mentality and perspective of the internal staff. This statement only justifies why they were not truly successful in how they were getting business.

Yes, “you” are a non-profit organization.

But as a non-profit organization that tries to retain members, “you” are also a business – and one that needs to think of themselves more of a business than a non-profit organization.

Why should a non-profit think like a business?

The success of your company starts with your philosophy and mindset. There’s nothing wrong with being a non-profit organization, but a successful non-profit organization needs to think like a business in today’s modern society.

Always thinking you’re a non-profit is limiting your ability to expand your organization and perform the best your company has to offer on all levels.

A business mindset can help you determine marketing strategies, missed business opportunities, audience/consumer development and retention, potential business relations and more.

With a business mindset, your company can create a better brand marketing presence for your organization, which will give you a better edge on doing “business as usual.”


I’m sure that you may have thoughts or comments on this post. Please do provide constructive feedback and looking forward to reading your comments!

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