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CoverOptions-Asmall2Progress reports. Annual reports. Grantee communications. Media relations.

The world of private, nonprofit branding is a unique area of strategic communications with its own distinct set of needs and marketing language. In fact, the word “marketing” is not always considered a relevant term in meetings with executive managers of cause-based organizations. With such a finite number of constituents comprising what is generally known to be a small base of audiences, “strategic communications” would be the more appropriate way to refer to our work for these revered institutions.

If traditional marketing has undergone a revolutionary transformation in the way it approaches brand, private foundations have spent the last 20 years or so being far more restrained and thoughtful about the expression of their mission and work. Precise, targeted initiatives have been more of a surgical process than full-blown marketing exercise — and funded investigators or grantees have dominated the universe of audiences. Communication tools are often restrained to a flagship website and a few simple, but substantial, printed communications.

In fact, for many foundations, the idea of branding is an unfamiliar idea, as families that spawn these foundations are often uncomfortable with having any attention drawn to the entity itself. Historically, it’s the grantees that are showcased through featured case examples of work highlighted in annual reports, or on the flagship website.

Unlike public charities, private foundations have one important marketing requirement removed from the mix: They do not require fundraising. Still, there is an interesting evolution of branding practices currently taking place. Private foundations are beginning to adopt more conventional strategies to sharpen their image and articulate their mission, vision, and values more effectively. This all seems driven by an innovative approach in operations and grantmaking, with an emphasis on creative strategies for achieving the mission of various programs.

This may entail more expansive networking among peer organizations and functioning as a convener or leader to organize work around one tactical goal, which in turn calls for out-of-the-box tactics to tell their stories.

For years, our team designed the Prospectus for one of the largest private foundations in the world. For private organizations like Nathan Cummings Foundation or V. Kann Rasmussen, we developed ten-year reports that focused on accomplishments of the past and the roadmap for challenges ahead. We designed limited brand identity systems and created flagship websites and annual reports for the Simons Foundation. These traditional strategies focused on exclusive audiences and were limited in the scope of desired outcome. In a few cases, our work amounted to spending months in development of a printed annual report, for distribution among a highly select (albeit influential) group of Board members and grantees.

As one would expect, perhaps, the expression of brand at many of these foundations resembled more of a whisper than a multichannel, coordinated effort to project a strong image.

Increasingly, we are being asked to develop brand strategies, deliver core messaging, or even create community microsites for one initiative or focus area. Several of the foundations that have contacted us in recent years have expressed a desire to build stronger alliances with media outlets and proactively manage their own brand story, sharing their own version of an elevator pitch. They seek greater transparency and full disclosure of the work they are doing to fulfill their original purpose.

New communications ideas require thoughtful planning and design, and with those efforts, a holistic plan or strategy for which messages are being delivered to what audience.

In one instance, a leading executive at one of the largest foundations proposed an innovative way for our group to assist. We were asked to consider how Iridium might become a preferred agency — working not for the foundation, but for their grantees — helping these smaller satellite teams do a better job of branding through improving core messaging and platform design.

Finally, as one might expect, the Boards of these organizations are comprised of some of the world’s top business minds, representing deep experience in large-scale corporate brands in many cases. The influence of those Board Trustees can be far reaching; it begins at the executive management level of the organization and trickles down to senior managers and the agencies they hire.

Innovation and contemporary best practices are gaining traction in the world of philanthropy. Private foundations are rethinking the way they go about delivering on their mission. Increasingly, the way they communicate with all audiences is bound to follow — along with branding strategies, messaging, communications tools, and media channels.