Six Steps to Rebranding Your Nonprofit

Rebranding Can Help Your Nonprofit Stand Out from the Crowd

Rebranding Can Help Your Nonprofit Stand Out from the Crowd

A Public Health Institute Demonstrates the Way

Is there value in a non-profit brand? Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC) certainly believes so. PHMC - a non-profit public health institute – is completing a successful rebranding, strengthening its position as a brand ahead of the pack. While there are costs associated with rebranding, the benefit of standing out from the crowd may well be worth it to your organization – especially when major donors and funders are more rigorously choosing organizations to which they will give gifts.

Lessons in Rebranding

Through a carefully constructed strategic plan which grew out of its rebranding efforts, Public Health Management Corporation is now able to communicate meaningful value to its stakeholders. And, the organization learned some lessons along the way. In July 2008, the 36-year-old nonprofit then known as Philadelphia Health Management Corporation announced a soft-launch of the organization’s rebranding.  

After formally changing its name to Public Health Management Corporation and gradually introducing the new brand on its website, in its print newsletter and on letterhead, PHMC launched a successful full-scale branding outreach in November through a major stakeholder engagement event, media announcement and related public relations efforts about the business side of nonprofits.

The Power of “Brand”

What led PHMC to execute the rebranding? And how should a nonprofit decide whether rebranding is right for its situation?

1. Define brand as a concept.

Before you can consider the issue you brand, you need to adopt a consistent definition of brand. Some people will say it’s a logo, others will say advertising, still others will say reputations. If you ask this question of 20 people you may well receive 20 different responses. PHMC uses this definition: Brand is the emotional connection between the stakeholder and the organization. All of the elements people list are encompassed by this definition and combined to create brand. 

2. Conduct stakeholder research.

With this definition of brand, the stakeholder – anyone with a vested interest in the organization (employees, board members, funders, clients, competitors, government agencies, vendors and so forth) – is a critical factor. So be sure that you clearly identify your stakeholders and use them as a touchstone for understanding your brand image.

This requires brand perception research through which you gather the impressions and beliefs that your stakeholders hold about your organization. Since brand reflects a combination of the attributes you wittingly choose and those imposed by the environment, you will find some gap between your organization’s brand goals and your audience’s perception of the brand. The nature and size of that gap can indicate whether you are ripe to take greater control of your brand, either through enhanced efforts around your current brand or through rebranding.

PHMC began the rebranding process in response to stakeholder research indicating that though seen as a trusted, collaborative, innovative and visionary leader, its public perception may not have been keeping pace with its rapid expansion. Research revealed that key decision-makers had limited knowledge of the breadth of PHMC’s work, restricted to the elements to which they had direct relationships.

“Given the broad reach of PHMC – nearly 1,400 employees, 250 programs, nine affiliates, 70 sites and 40,000 people served each year – a considerable range of the agency’s scope, impact and value could have been undetected by any given partner, collaborator or funder,” says Richard J. Cohen, PHMC president and CEO.

3. Identify brand strengths and weaknesses.

Conducting stakeholder research enables you to identify brand strengths and weaknesses. Research on PHMC brand perception showed that stakeholders held PHMC in high regard for its leadership and vision, but sometimes experienced confusion about its role in the health system.

“Looking beyond the results of the research,” says Dina Baker, vice president of communications, “we recognized that we are in a market that burgeons with health care entities.  Another goal of our rebranding is to provide clear differentiation for PHMC in our role as a major public health institute.”   

4. Ask the tough question: “What’s in a name?”

This is the touch question because changing a name – especially an old and established one – can be an emotional experience for many stakeholders. Before taking this route, make sure the name convincingly presents itself as a factor in closing a perception gap, and that the gap is significant enough to require such a change. Once PHMC leadership decided to rebrand in response to its marketplace, the first step was evaluating the existing name and – if needed – determining a new one.

“A name helps to define an organization,” says Cohen. “And our name clearly plays a role in establishing our legitimacy and economic value, for attracting donors, people and organizations.”  In the end, PHMC did decide to move away from the name that had served it well throughout its 36 years, but not to stray far. 

“By simply changing ‘Philadelphia’ to ‘Public’ our new name placed clearer emphasis on our core non-profit mission of public health and all that it encompasses,” notes Cohen. In addition, even as PHMC firmly remains a service partner to the city of Philadelphia, the organization’s geographic range had expanded considerably. “Our stature, size, results and management processes give us opportunities to positively affect public health throughout the state and in some cases even across the country,” says Cohen.

PHMC chose to retain “Management Corporation” in its name because its unique business model and strong management capabilities signified critical aspects of its identity, ability to grow and attraction to funders – brand attributes clearly valued by key stakeholders according to the research. 

“The PHMC model has helped steer us to a strong record of financial management. We have an annual budget of about $165 million, managing more than 250 programs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware with an overhead rate of fewer than seven percent – a rarity in non-profit management, where average overhead is around 15 percent,” says Chief Financial Officer Marino Puliti. “Thus our management practices translate to savings of up to $13 million per year, which we can reinvest in services.” 

5. Move beyond the name.

Rebranding your nonprofit is not a one-step process. The transition may take months, even years, and the choice of whether to change your name – and, if so, to what – is just the beginning.

“As important as our name may be, neither it – nor the fresh logo and brand colors – is the end-game,” says Cohen. “If the brand is the emotional connection between the stakeholder and the organization, our duty is to live our brand and make it meaningful to our stakeholders so we can all be more effective in the work we do every day.”

6. Tap into the brand power of your employees.

Part of the process of rebranding is recognizing the power of communicating brand changes with employees. For many stakeholders, employees provide their primary brand exposure to your organization’s brand.

PHMC conducts brand training sessions for employees regularly, helping internal stakeholders to grasp, own and internalize the totality of PHMC and its brand promise.  “Employees can become the most important aspect of the renewed face of PHMC to external audiences,” stresses Cohen. “I consider our nearly 1,400 employees to be the greatest ambassadors of the brand.”


About PHMC: Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC) is a non-profit public health institute that builds healthier communities through partnerships with government, foundations, businesses and other community-based organizations. It fulfills its mission to improve the health of the community by providing outreach, health promotion, education, research, planning, technical assistance, and direct services. PHMC has served the Greater Philadelphia region since 1972. For more information on PHMC, visit www.phmc.org

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