Insights
4 min Read
December 1, 2016

Leading a nonprofit rebrand: Lessons learned from Good to Great

Behind the most successful nonprofit rebranding initiatives lies not just a great logo or perfectly phrased tagline, but also a strong leader and team of people who feel engaged in the process, motivated to give thoughtful feedback, and focused on the goals of the work—not just the work’s deliverables.

In the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, Jim Collins offers a powerfully simple metaphor for explaining what makes a good organization become a great one, which naturally applies to the work of nonprofit rebranding.

You are a bus driver. The bus, your company, is at a standstill, and it’s your job to get it going. You have to decide where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and who’s going with you.

Most people assume that great bus drivers (read: business leaders) immediately start the journey by announcing to the people on the bus where they’re going—by setting a new direction or by articulating a fresh corporate vision.

In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.

Nonprofits embarking on big organizational shifts such as rebranding can also benefit from some of Collins’ thinking, shifting attention away from the “what” to the “who.” Inspired by his bus metaphor, we’ve assembled a few leadership lessons for nonprofits thinking about undergoing a significant rebrand. Safe travels.

  1. Invite the right passengers onboard the bus. Nonprofit rebranding is not a one-person job or a task managed exclusively by a consultant. Rebranding successfully requires assembling the right team for the journey as much as making decisions like what color your new logo should be. Strong leadership entails a well-thought-out plan for engagement and feedback from different areas of the organization—from staff inside and outside the communications team, to senior leadership, to the board, to outside experts and consultants. The earlier you know who needs to be on the bus, the better. 
  2. Get the right butts in the right seats. Effective nonprofit leaders don’t just invite the right people on the bus, they think about getting the right people in the right seats. For nonprofit rebranding, that means mapping out the responsibilities and expectations of those involved in the process based on their connection to the organization and areas of expertise, and clearly communicating how the ultimate decisions will be made. A RACI chart is a helpful tool to employ when rebranding: it clarifies roles and responsibilities, making sure that nothing falls through the cracks. RACI charts also prevent confusion by assigning clear ownership for tasks and decisions. We’ve seen that strong nonprofit leaders don’t shoulder the full responsibility for decision making or obscure how the decision will ultimately be made or who will make it. 
  3. Agree upon the destination. Now that you have the right people in the right seats, work on defining and communicating the destination. Jim Collins explains that this is where many leaders fall short—they start first with the “what” and then shift to the “who.” In the case of the nonprofit rebrand, that means getting aligned about what the rebrand is ultimately in service of (fundraising? greater awareness? advocacy?), identifying who the right audiences are to achieve that goal, and clarifying the strategies to reach them. As a leader, it’s your job to ensure that everyone understands and is bought into what the destination is and how you’ll get there. If everyone on the bus has a different destination in mind, then it’s going to be a tough journey. Some of the most challenging rebrand processes we’ve been a part of happen when key people involved lose sight of why they’re doing this. It’s the leader’s job to keep that vision alive. 
  4. Expect some potholes. Change is hard, and rebranding is no exception. The more you can embrace the idea that challenges will be part of the process—and better yet, see them coming before anyone else does—the better shape you’ll be in. People will disagree, and the work might not be “it” the first time around. Rebranding is a process, and as a leader it’s your job to expect the challenges, understand them, and navigate through them. 
  5. Keep your passengers in the know. Communicating with everyone involved throughout the rebrand process is essential, especially because rebrands don’t happen overnight. Let folks know what the process will include, what’s happening next, and the status of everything. Don’t leave your passengers unengaged or lost. 
  6. Triage passenger feedback and politics. When it’s time to start making decisions and evaluating the work, it’s your job to listen to new ideas without judgment, take feedback seriously, and process what you’ve heard through the lens of the desired goals. Consider everything, but be comfortable knowing that not everyone’s opinions have to be included or have to be reflected in the final product. It’s up to you, as the leader, to decide and hold firm on what will (and what won’t) happen.
  7. Arrive safely at the destination. Ultimately, it’s your job as the driver on this journey to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, and follow the smartest route possible. In a rebrand, you’ll have to ensure decisions are made, commit to those decisions, and make sure your team understands and supports those decisions. Some detours are okay, but a successful journey must come to an end.

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