Nov 26

Nonprofit Sector Just Needs a Little Re-Branding

For far too long, the nonprofit sector of American community and business has been marginalized to an afterthought in so many ways.  Often, those who are themselves a part of this very sector, they are the ones who actually cause it the most challenge.  Through bad perceptions, incorrect information, fear of reactions from the larger community, or even flat out personal intimidation as to what the “other way” might do to affect their careers… many have kept the sector in a box that has caused a true identity crisis for those of us who work with an 501(c) near our mission statement or a .org in our website.

Full disclosure. I’m a nonprofiteer. I love the nonprofit sector. I appreciate the work, the missions, the passion, and the commitment it takes to do such work as a career. The hours aren’t what many would call “great” – and neither is the pay for many (aka “most”) of us. But the reward is far greater than a 9-5 gig and a paycheck… it’s the reward of enriching community, make connection with those who need the support of others, just to help move forward and better a person’s station in life, or the give someone who is willing to put in the time within a program or initiative, to give them an opportunity for personal/spiritual/professional success. THAT is a reward that many of us call “inspirational” as well as “aspirational.”

But our sector has a simple, but very important, sector flaw…. it has bad branding.

Not as individual nonprofits… but as a sector.

Now you might be asking yourself: “Well Doug… what does a ‘good’ sector brand look like?

Good question, Mr. Made Up Person I Just Forced To Ask Me That Question.  Ironically, what I believe makes up a good branded sector is not what is solely defines as its brand; but rather what is doesn’t define itself as. Let me show you…

When I say “Boeing” what might you picture?

Many would say they picture planes… maybe a plane soaring in the air; maybe an assembly line putting a big-old Boeing 777 together, piece by piece.

When I say “Caterpillar” what might you picture? (First you might say, “A bug?” But then I would say, “No. More like the construction site kind of Caterpillar.”) Maybe you see a back-hoe or a dump truck or a bunch of digging machines, pulling dirt from a work site.

How about this.. what do you picture when I say, “Manufacturing?”




Tough right? Some of you might have seen an assembly line again. Maybe some of you see parts being made that become cars… some see potato chips being sorted and stuffed into bags. How about a bunch of technicians assembling the next iPad?

See, the thing about the manufacturing sector is that with all its various companies, products and areas of daily life that is touches… still the sector of “manufacturing” is branded. People know there is such a large grouping called “manufacturers” and most people are comfortable with the notion of data and status reports based upon a heading like “Manufacturing Down By 5%, Economy Looking for Answers”

Now, replace that word (“Manufacturing”) with “Nonprofit.”

Harder to see that, right?

Yet the two sector are so very close in terms of pure size. From 2010 numbers researched by the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University, manufacturing constituted 11.5 million employees in the US market, and was #2 only behind “Retail” (14.5 million) in terms of largest employment sector.  The nonprofit sector? It is #3 on this list with 10.7 million private employment jobs.

Imagine this? The THIRD largest private employment sector, and yet… we can’t really determine what a unifying “thing” is about nonprofits. It isn’t look at as a grouping that requires review, or status report on its health, or how that health is related to the overall employment/economic health of America.

That small difference in employment, and yet it feels like a foreign concept to many… including those in the sector.

Yet, when you look again at things like economic impact, or community development.. hell, even the basic “how’s our city ‘feeling’ gut sense of it all” – nonprofits play an invaluable role in the well-being of a community.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggestion a “whoa is me” kind of thought here. Nonprofits aren’t misunderstood or unknown to us all. When we see a homeless shelter, we understand it. We when see an art gallery or a charter school, we see it and understand it. When we pass by hospital, we understand what is happening in there on behalf of a community.

But do we see the WHOLE picture? Or just the part that fits a narrative we have been used to for so long?

Let’s go back to the manufacturing sector. When we think about it, no matter what we picture… we see JOBS. People are building those planes, and potato chips snacks, and iPads.

Those nonprofits? We see SERVICE. Or we see CHARITY. We see people being helped, children being assisted in learning at the charter school, or the sick being cared for in the hospital.

But what about the JOBS at those nonprofits? What about the payroll taxes being paid by workers? How about the disposable income that is given to those workers who flood the retail shops… and buy those airline tickets on those planes… buy those potato chips snacks at the vending machine? What about the jobs that keep that hospital clean by sweeping and doing other janitorial services?

We are short-branded, to coin a new phrase (I think)… we have been branded as “charity” and “good work” – but we have not been branded as an industry, with employees and jobs, and economic impact.  It’s bad branding.

It’s one of the reasons CForward was created. It is the proverbial wake up call to both the nonprofit sector, the politicians, as well as the overall public at large. This sector is large. It is a job creator. It is a necessity to provide the right community ingredients to attract, retain, expand, and promote for-profit jobs and businesses to thrive. As it is said at CForward…

No Profits Without Nonprofits.

So how do we help in building a better brand? Individual nonprofits have solid, strong brands. It can be done.

First, it requires a sense of unity. Accepting and promoting one’s self as a part of the larger component is essential. Whether you are Boeing building those 777 aircraft; or the leather workshop cutting out the fabrics for those first class seats inside the plane; or the one-person shop who bought a seat on the plane to fly to a convention to see his “individually design laptops” to customers across the country.. ALL would define themselves as “manufacturers.”

Nonprofits must follow suit.

Secondly we must own that voice and volume. The National Association of Manufacturers has the megaphone for the voices of manufacturing; The National Retail Federation has it for shops (whether Macy’s or little Aunt Macy’s Dress Shop on Main Street USA); where is it for nonprofits?

This isn’t a power trip. It isn’t designed so that someone else must lose a place at the table. It’s go bring a chair up to the table that has been sorely missed in conversations about policy and community.

There’s room, we just have to let the dinner hosts know by RSVPing our place. And who’s table is this?


It’s the people’s table. Our elected officials on all levels (federal, state, local) charged with finding solutions to our collective challenges and issues. Jobs, the environment, urban planning, health & welfare, social services, the arts…. you name it, it’s being discussed and voted upon. And yet, the one sector – dare I say the connecting fabric for all these parts of community – the nonprofit sector, is often still stuck in the waiting room, waiting for a dinner bell that just won’t be ringing any time soon.

It’s time.The bells has rung, and it’s time to eat.

If you are a donor, a volunteer, an employee, or just someone who understands that the role of nonprofits in your community truly shapes your sense of that community… I’d ask you to take a look at CForward.  Our re-branding of the sector is both simple and incredibly complex: we are looking to establish that the voice of those who very often speak for those most voiceless can be heard loud and clear… by means of ballot, votes, issue discussion, social media, and a new way to define what constitutes “economic role” in America.

Our sector is diverse. Our sector is urban, our sector is rural. Our sector feeds the poor, our sector dazzle to well-to-do with arts and entertainment. Our sector protects the environment, and our sector reveres faith.  We do all these things, but we cannot yet define ourselves collectively.

Until now.

I’d hope you would consider visiting CForward, learning more about it, participating in our programs of nomination of candidates from across the country, across the parties, and across the ideology. It’s not about a single message, it’s about a single voice…a single brand.




  1. Jonathan

    Helpful/informative piece. Isn’t Independent Sector supposed to be a voice for nfp’s? Does CForward hope to replace their role or supplement it in some way?

    1. dknight

      Independent Sector is a good resource; however they do not support candidates or move into complete campaign support of candidates who bring the assets of the sector to public policy plans. CForward, as a 501(c)(4) and a PAC, is specifically built to do this. I tend to think of it as groups like Independent Sector as strong resource/white paper organizations, and CForward as promotion/Get Out The Vote/Grassroots Organization organization.

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