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The Secret to Building Nonprofit Brand Awareness

Building brand awareness was the number one goal among the nonprofits we surveyed this year, so I thought an article on the topic would be helpful.

For whatever reason – probably because of the perceived resources required and/or too lofty of goals – building brand awareness is a daunting challenge for many. So much so that there is an overwhelming feeling of not knowing even where to begin. “We need to reach more people”; “we want them to know what we do”; “we want to inspire them to get involved or take action”; “we want them to relate this work to us”; “we want them to think of us daily”; “we want them to care about and understand our cause as much as we do”. Do these sound like some of the goals you’ve set for your organization?

I’ve found that simplifying the task to two main components can help. Because, really, that’s the way it breaks down: first, there is the task of “getting out there” or becoming known, then (second), there is the task of relaying a message – what do you want to say to those you ultimately reach? Of course, in reality those two things happen at the same time, but if we look at them separately for a moment, all of the sudden, I’m hoping, you will agree that you CAN do this…

PART 1:getting out there
This is a bit of a misnomer and there are three key tactics that will work depending on your organization and budgets. The real tricky part is not the “getting out there” per say, but the key to the strategy that most miss the ball on: the “defining your target audience” part. I know that sounds over simplified, but reaching all Canadians with no media budget is something I’ve heard more than once this year and is just outright not realistic no matter how good your message is. Not unlike: “I would like the viral campaign please”. More on that topic in this post.

Forgive my rant, the point is, no matter the size of your budget, you’ve really got to be focused/targeted. Even if you do have a larger outreach capacity, a highly targeted approach will yield far greater rewards.

Here are the 3 main ways to “becoming know”… All contingent on having really well defined your priority target audience first.

  1. Influencers: we wrote a post on this recently. As media (including social media) and the sources where people go to find information continue to be disrupted, organizations can and should leverage those that have established followings as a means for reaching target audiences. Influencers can be celebrities, sometimes they’re professionals, and other times they’re just ordinary citizens like you and me who are passionate about a cause. But the difference between influencers today and celebrity endorsements of the past is that the influencer is just that: yes, he or she has a large following and has cultivated his/how own audiences, but, he/she has (more) direct access to the people you want to reach (not to mention a certain influence over them) and there is value in that. Anything valuable can be monetized and therefore bought. So, find out who your target audience is paying attention to and capitalize on that “messenger”. For example, invite your influencer to your next corporate event (all expenses paid) in exchange for an editorial piece on the issue. You provide reward (or compensation) and material for new content. While the influencer provides reach for your “message” or brand.


  1. Advertising Media: probably the most traditional but less used (in the nonprofit sector) strategy for reaching new audiences is through advertising media. If you need a 101 (or just a really good refresher) on advertising media including all the various options, Wikipedia offers a great overview in this post. The sophistications of internet advertising can ensure each dollar spent goes towards conversions in a CPA (cost per action) model. I am highlighting digital advertising because the (low to little) production costs generally make this form of outreach more accessible and measurable (from a budget point of view).


  1. Partnerships: we’ve published on this topic in past as well. The partnerships and associations you make allow you to increase reach by leveraging not only your audience but the audiences of your partner(s). It also offers many other benefits. Being affiliated with other parties/organizations helps to inject meaning and positive equity into your brand. Also, people are more likely to respond to a joint program as it implies credibility: “If all of these organizations are standing behind something, then it must be important”.


Case: Canadian Cancer Society

The Canadian Cancer Society have a well-developed brand awareness strategy in which they build awareness through their many public events. These events are generally supported by corporate groups as well as educational institutions. Premier Kathleen Wynne has been an influencer for the Canadian Cancer Society appearing at multiple CCS events in the past. Premier Wynne has a repertoire of positions held throughout the Ontario educational system beginning as a trustee for the Toronto District School Board to holding the position of Minister of Education from 2006-2010.

This surely has assisted the Canadian Cancer Society in developing their brand awareness and reach into the educational system across Ontario. Annually flocks of students across the province participate in Canadian Cancer Society fundraising events such as the Relay for Life and Stair Climb for Cancer. Collectively schools participate in the events thanks to a developed relationship between the Canadian Cancer Society and Kathleen Wynne.


Check out Part 2 of this two part article where we focus on messaging strategies, and how to compel your audience through storytelling.