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Rebranding a Nonprofit Organization


Nonprofits typically do good deeds, often in a number of ways, but what is a particular nonprofit’s focus? How can it go about creating favorable word-of-mouth? What makes it a better bet than other, similar organizations that also seek funding? How can its employees and stakeholders best support a nonprofit’s core purpose?


As in all things profitable and worthwhile, there’s power in strategic focus, and that’s what Stephen Hawley Martin’s identity branding studies are meant to help an organization do—focus on what counts most in their quest for success.


This is one example from his files. 


Keep America Beautiful


Most people think those three words are a slogan that aptly expresses a worthy sentiment. If they remember anything at all about Keep America Beautiful, they likely recall an advertisement that appeared years ago showing the rugged face of an American Indian with a tear running down his cheek. 





Keep America Beautiful is, in fact, a national nonprofit organization that was formed back in 1953 to help preserve America’s natural beauty through public education at the community level. At the time the study you will soon read about was conduced, its strength and ability to bring about positive change emanated from 454 affiliates with 2.6 million volunteers. These troopers in the heartland enabled the organization to penetrate down to the block level in most localities throughout the United States.


In preliminary interviews with constituent groups, corporate members, affiliates and staff, we found agreement that, while the organization had a strong presence in affiliate communities, it lacked clout and a cohesive voice at the national level. Constituents felt little had been done to promote the collective accomplishments of the affiliates; confusion had arisen from inconsistent naming of local affiliates; and the perception was that most people—the general public, that is—believed Keep America Beautiful was a slogan, not an organization.


After serving the worthy goal of American beautification for quite some time, the organization faced an identity crisis, which included a 30 percent decline in corporate funding.

Teaming with Keep America Beautiful member Proctor & Gamble—the company that provided the quantitative research needed for this project—we set our to clarify the organization’s core purpose, identity, and core competencies as well as to determine which critical issues were the most important to address. These would be accomplished by answers provided by past chairmen, corporate members, affiliate and advisory council representatives, committee heads, staff members, volunteers, and associates across the nation—as well as by people from the advertising agency familiar with the account. 




As is often the case, in Phases II and I, both one-on-one interviews and focus group discussions were employed. In addition to providing clues concerning what would lead to a sharp focus on what would pay off the organization’s core purpose, this internal interviewing phase typically generates among stakeholders a sense of involvement in, as well as support and ownership of the research effort.


In this study, as in many others, Phase III involved quantitative research. For Keep America Beautiful, two questionnaires were developed based on the findings of Phases II and I that differed in content and length. One was directed specifically to corporate members; the other to executive directors and state heads of affiliates. 




Keep America Beautiful’s greatest strength was seen as its affiliate network. It also was agreed that the organization should focus on improving the beautification of a community’s physical, visual environment, rather than take on complex issues such as water toxins or air pollution. Participants also felt that the organization should seek the support of foundations, philanthropic organizations and wealthy individuals to broaden funding and support beyond industry alone.


Envisioned Future


When asked to describe a future they would like to see, those interviewed described a vision reminiscent of the phrase that Ronald Reagan borrowed from John Winthrop: “a shining city on a hill.” In this brave new world envisioned by respondents, living conditions in towns, cities, and communities across the nation would benefit from a spirit of volunteerism and local involvement fostered by the Keep America Beautiful organization. People would take responsibility for their own environment, and through civic pride, they would come together to do what government could not. 


Attitudes And Behavior 


It was clear that participants thought Keep America Beautiful was the only organization with the means and wherewithal to bring about widespread behavior change, as the quotes below from respondents indicate:


• Through Keep America Beautiful, it’s possible to get the best thinking from hundreds of

  affiliates, all of which can be consolidated and shared.

• Keep America Beautiful is the only good source (in my city) for factual information.

• The educational materials and training are the best.


They also believed the national organization provided credibility and support to issues and local initiatives. Its core strength stemmed from strongly held values, beliefs and guiding principles, which included:


• Individual responsibility

• Environmental stewardship

• Volunteerism

• Partnership 

• Grassroots mobilization


More Comments Included:


• Keep America Beautiful believes in empowering individuals to change communities for

  the better.

• It believes in motivating positive, responsible behavior.

• It believes in providing grassroots behavioral change programs leading to community



Success, however, was measured at the local level. Those interviewed described the organization as: 


• A catalyst for change; a hands-on organization

• A nationwide network that acts locally

• A group that does something; that brings about action at the local level. 


Accountability is strength. Participants felt that set Keep America Beautiful apart. An enduring tenet that came through loud and clear might read as follows: 


• To affect real change, it is necessary to change attitudes and behaviors at the

  grassroots level.


Value Statements


From the input touched upon above, six statements were prepared for testing in Phase II. These were sent out ahead of time to group teleconference participants. Proof points were included to amplify each of the general statements. 

Here are the propositions tested:


1. Environmental Educator: a nationwide network of local affiliates that equip citizens

    with the knowledge and resources needed to address community environmental


2. Beautification: a national network of grassroots organizations that work to preserve

    America’s natural beauty.

3. Community change agents: a nationwide network of volunteers who have joined

    together to improve their own communities.

4. Community Partnerships: a nationwide network of grassroots organizations that are

    forging community progress on environmental concerns through local partnerships.

5. Clean Communities: a nationwide network of grassroots organizations that are

    working to develop sustainable solutions for cleaner communities.

6. Litter Prevention: a network of grassroots organizations that are mobilizing citizens in

    communities across the country to work together to prevent litter.




The statements with the greatest appeal were those that focused on achievements at the community level. However, none of the statements emerged as a clear winner. However, phrases such as the ones below evokes positive reactions:


• stimulating positive attitudes; 

• educating individuals about the pivotal role they can play;

• encouraging responsibility for the local environment; 

• addressing fundamental attitudes and behaviors; 

• changing communities for the better. 


These phrases reflected Keep America Beautiful’s unique strength and point of difference. Clues had emerged. Like scattered breadcrumbs along a path, they always seem to lead to the identity. 


Here are some typical comments:


• I like the personal responsibility part of these.

• Taking personal responsibility for the local environment is what we do, no matter what

   the title.

• I like the words ‘local citizens and incredible force,’ but we need to emphasize that this

   about personal responsibility.

• The pivotal role of individuals is how we get it done.

• Individuals make it happen.

• I think we have to talk about changing attitudes and behaviors. That's who we are.


Value propositions dealing with public/private partnerships, education, and the network were seen as enabling factors that provided the means to the end, but they did not define unmatched value.


• ‘Individuals making a difference’ is an important point to communicate. We do that

   through education and training, but an individual’s ability to make a difference is most


• Education is the means to get people to act. This is how to get individuals involved.


Litter and beautification were viewed as subsets of what the organization did, versus what it stood for. Most felt that the area of focus ought to be the physical and visual environment . . . initiatives to make life aesthetically pleasing. Issues undertaken should be limited to those that individuals could be empowered to affect. 


This was a point of differentiation. Keep America Beautiful’s identity, under this scenario, had to be related closely to and rooted in the strong notion of individual responsibility and ownership. Issues such as litter meet these criteria because litter is something an average individual can do something about. Hazardous waste is another matter. Others were deemed better equipped to deal with that problem.


Findings And General Conclusions


As is usually the case in studies such as this, the overall findings of the quantitative work confirmed the individual and group conclusions. When asked what Keep America Beautiful’s primary mission ought to be, the answer given most often had to do with the organization’s ability to change in a positive way the attitudes of individuals. It was something very close to this: 


• To lead the way toward community progress and beautification by motivating positive

  attitudes toward the environment at the grassroots level.


Clearly, Keep America Beautiful’s unique strength and unmatched value was the ability to bring about attitudinal and behavioral change—because it was able to do so at both the local and the national level. This was the reason corporations supported the organization, and why communities and volunteers chose to affiliate with it. Respondents believed there was no other organization focused on changing the fundamental attitudes and behaviors that caused mishandling of litter, solid waste, and related issues. Finally, they felt that no other organization in existence was able to affect changes the way this organization could.


Here is what was learned and confirmed about the brand:


Brand Position


Keep America Beautiful is the unifying force that changes attitudes and behaviors toward the environment in ways that can be seen through a nationwide network of grassroots organizations.


Core Purpose


Its core purpose is to encourage individuals to take greater responsibility for their community’s environment and to personally commit to bringing about change.


Core Value and Beliefs


• Individual Responsibility

• Environmental stewardship

• Volunteerism—community involvement

• Partnership—working together

• Grassroots mobilization




To affect real change, we must change attitudes and behavior at the grassroots level.


Core Identity


A force for positive change


Comments About The Findings


As reached the end of the study was reached, it became clear once again that leaders can get caught up in the day-to-day. Faced as they are with immediate concerns, it may be difficult for them to think back and focus on why an organization came to be in the first place. Its unmatched value, its claim to fame, it’s raison d'être becomes diffused and fuzzy. Often, it is especially hard for someone inside an organization to have the intuitive wherewithal to know what those on the outside believe to be the most important single thing that sets the organization apart.


Operational Initiatives


To hammer home and be known as the leader in helping to change attitudes and behaviors on issues nationally, Keep America Beautiful would have to align its operating policies, practices and processes to become the unifying force that would affect behavior change. New initiatives and changes needed to include: 


• improved servicing and training; 

• network expansion; 

• program development; 

• enhanced consistency of look and message; 

• recognition and reward for achieving desired behaviors and attitude; 

• expansion of connections with government to communicate facts and information; 

• upgrading staff and information systems; 

• expansion of funding sources. 


Because the organization had operated by using a systematic, standardized approach, it could adjust to provide affiliate members with the resources, programs, guidelines and training needed to change behavior and attitudes at the local level. 


As one affiliate leader said, “Without Keep America Beautiful, a community could get a task force together and good work would be done. But with Keep America Beautiful, we don’t have to reinvent or recreate the wheel.”


And another said: “The national organization acts as a unifying force, one that brings to bear the best thinking and proven approaches needed to solve issues faced by communities.”




This study demonstrated something often seen—how important it is to align all support systems so that they focus on and provide unsurpassed value. This is true for both nonprofits and for-profit organizations. Only when such alignment and focus is in place and operational can a claim to fame be successfully marketed to—and accepted by—the outside world. For Keep America Beautiful, this was of critical importance. 




It’s one thing to focus a selling effort on a well-defined brand position drawn from the expectations of the target. It’s another to walk the talk. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a slight shift to provide clear focus. But when such a shift occurs, success often depends ultimately on operational realignment in order to deliver on a brand’s unique and compelling promise.


If you’d like to have a conversation with Stephen Hawley Martin to discuss the possibility of having him create a roadmap that will lead to a clear focus for your organization, send him an e-mail. There will be no obligation on your part, it won’t cost you a thing, and who knows where it might lead.


Send Stephen an e-mail

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