The world of NGOs has changed substantially over the past decade. The number of organizations has skyrocketed and the competition for funding has intensified. At the same time environmental, social, economic and humanitarian needs have increased. New forms of non-profit organizations, such as social enterprises, have emerged, and new technological and communication capabilities have revolutionized the way NGOs interact with their audience and stakeholders.
Partnerships and alliances of all types, both within and across sectors, have proliferated and created new options and challenges for non-profit organizations. We are seeing more networks, coalitions and alliances that bring together multiple autonomous organizations, often from different sectors, to address complex social issues.
According to Laidler-Kylander and Stenzel Shepard (2014) two major trends are of particular relevance to non-profit organizations today: changes in communications technology, including the rise in social media and networking, and the increase in partnerships and collaborative action.
Why you should share what you know
Social media and social networking sites, blogs, and other forms of virtual communities have fundamentally changed the way organizations interact with their stakeholders and audiences. Social media are a collaborative space where ideas are open-sourced. They offer a platform for real two-way conversations. Social media have shifted communications from a one-way control of information to a dialogue. Sometimes even without including the organization, (i.e. when others refer to your organization). Social media have also shifted the threshold for engagement and participation: anyone can actively share thoughts, photos, stories and most important; advice and lessons learned. Social media have increased the intensity of communication. Continuous communication is nowadays expected.
These changes might be overwhelming at first sight. But they have the potential to reach a large number of people quickly and spread a message at low costs. Internal and external “ambassadors” can be tapped to widely communicate and drive support or knowledge sharing.
Yet, it is difficult, if not impossible to control the content. This is one of the main reasons why many NGOs still struggle with social media. However, the risk of losing control is more than compensated by an increase in authenticity and transparency. Today, organizations like Helvetas must embrace the reality that social media have changed the way people engage with and talk about us and our cause. Strict control and policing of content and messages are no longer useful or possible. The relinquishment of control and the expectation of all stakeholders to be able to enter into a genuine dialogue is at the heart of what is called Brand Democracy.
Why you should aim to be attractive
The second trend towards partnerships and collaboration has proliferated with increasingly blurring boundaries between non-profit, for-profit and government sectors. The increase in multi-stakeholder partnerships is driven by the growing realization that individual non-profits cannot achieve their social missions alone. At the same time, the funding landscape requires coalition building. This imperative of partnership and collaboration is another factor that argues for a new approach to communication. It underlies the concept of Brand Affinity, whereby an organization uses and leverages its brand, not only on behalf of its own organization but also to attract partners to drive shared social impact.
These two trends evoke a paradigm shift in our perception of the role of a non-profit brand. Instead of thinking of the brand as a logo, colors and PowerPoint templates, we need to understand the brand as the embodiment of our mission and values. It is about the pride we feel in our work, approaches and principles but also our culture, passion and values. With this shift, the responsibility for the brand does not reside any longer within the marketing department only but is conceived as everyone’s job in the organization.
So, what can we do to leverage the opportunities that are emerging with the rise of social media and the increased emphasis on partnerships?
It all starts with Brand Integrity
The particular challenge of a large NGO such as Helvetas, with its wide range of stakeholders, is to uphold the integrity of the brand. Brand integrity is avoiding the risk of self-perception (identity) and external perception (image) drifting apart. A gap between identity and image can jeopardize trust.
Brand integrity starts with the organization's mission and values, orients itself to the organizational strategy and strives for a full alignment of the organization's identity and image. Brand integrity is based on a shared understanding of the purpose and meaning of the organization. It creates internal cohesion and external trust and finally leads to strengthening capacities and impact.
Brand integrity is closely intertwined with Brand Democracy. It is a continuous participatory process of defining and promoting the brand identity. Brand democracy means that the organization trusts its employees and external partners to share the organization's mission and values in their own words. Brand democracy replaces tight control over how the organization is portrayed by creating and empowering brand ambassadors.
How to become an empowered brand ambassador?
To reflect the diversity of the organization, we should encourage as many colleagues as possible to act and communicate as brand ambassadors. The principle is: no one is obliged to, but everyone is allowed to.
Brand ambassadorship builds on three blocks:
1. Participate in a process. Get engaged in discussions around the mission, values, principles and strategies of your organization. Talk to colleagues, partners, members, supporters, donors and reflect on the image. Identify shared perceptions and differences. This will help you to get a better understanding of what is at the core of the organization and brings everyone on the same page. It is a continuous learning process, which will allow you to share your message on your preferred social media channel right from the beginning.
2. Change your mindset. Don’t wait for clearance. Start sharing your knowledge, your experience, your data, your successes, your failures. And even more important, share your emotions, your impressions, your convictions, your vision, your disappointments by your storytelling. Define your audience (experts, donors, academia, friends, family, etc.) and choose your channel accordingly. Whether you prefer LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, just start with the channel your feel most comfortable with. Write short messages or long blog texts, post pictures or short video testimonials from the field. There is only one rule: Be truthful and authentic.
3. Don’t be afraid. There will be no censorship from the communication department or your boss. Just stick to our values and principles and use common sense. Our communication guidelines also give you orientation. Identify the most adept and enthusiastic brand ambassadors among your colleagues, follow them on their channels and learn from them. And if you are more the cautious type, then support others by nurturing them with content to share.
It does not stop here. By increasing the organization’s outreach through brand ambassadorship, you contribute to creating cohesion across the organization and trust among partners, supporters and donors. This is the foundation for building brand affinity and increasing capacities and impact for the change we are up to.
Being an active brand ambassador has a convenient side effect: it also means being an ambassador for yourself.