As part of our Philanthropy February campaign, I immediately thought of a friend and colleague, Jen Barth, who – with a husband, two twin daughters, a dog and cat, and running her own business – finds the time to be a leader in grassroots education and children’s health reform.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Jen about what nonprofits, with limited resources and budget, can do to build their brands and connect with their supporters.

SJ: Your company, Big Small Brands, is all about building the brands of developing companies. How have you seen brand-building work to the advantage for nonprofits?

Jen:  The challenges faced by nonprofit brands are really no different from those faced by small business owners, corporations, and large-scale global brands:  we’re all working to define our unique position in the marketplace, get our messages across to engage our targets, and create lasting relationships that will drive our organizations forward.

Nonprofits simply need to be a bit more strategic and creative to get the most mileage out of their marketing resources. A few tips:

  • Make choices. I encourage nonprofits I work with to consider their brands as a lens through which all behaviors, actions, and resource decisions — time, money and energy — should be filtered. In Becoming a Category of One, Joe Calloway sums up branding well as: “Who you are, what you promise, and your ability and willingness to deliver on that promise.”  Making the promise is an important first step, but how you deliver on it will ultimately define your success.  I firmly believe that the most successful brands get clear and stay focused.  A few examples of nonprofits I have worked with who have clear, focused identities are Healthy Child, Healthy World, The Pixie Project, and the UN Foundations’ new Shot@Life campaign.  The Cone Nonprofit Power Brand Top 10 List is a great resource for more inspiration, too.
  • Align Around Your Audience. Honing in on what matters most to key targets is key for nonprofits; there’s no place this matters more than on your website, which is often a brand’s first— and most universal — touchpoint.  I recently interviewed Aimee Craig, Communications Manager for the Chalkboard Project, who shared tips from their recent redesign, which was informed “by imagining our users and building out the navigation based on their needs.”  This is a simple step, but one often overlooked.  I encourage all nonprofits to consider whether their web offerings are framed to address distinct user needs.  Clarity connects!  The recent award-winning rebranding of the YMCA of the USA is another good example.
  • Go Social.  Social media is the ideal outlet for nonprofits — and not just because it’s free. There are so many great examples of nonprofits embracing social media platforms to look to.  Mashable’s 4 Tips for Nonprofit Social Media Success is also a helpful read, as is 12 Tips for Nonprofits on Social Media.  It’s great to see so many nonprofits joining Pinterest, too; check out 12 Ways to Use Pinterest For Your Nonprofit for starter tips on this rapidly growing community.  And I encourage nonprofits to get a copy of TheSmoBooks series – they are pocket-sized guides that are super helpful in navigating Blogging, Twitter and Linked In.  Love them!
  • Listen and Engage. This is a big one, both within and outside the realm of social media.  In recent weeks we saw one of the world’s most esteemed, award-winning “nonprofit power brands,” The Susan G. Komen Foundation, lose considerable credibility — and thousands of loyal supporters.  As a longtime Komen supporter, I was disappointed to see how long it took for them to react when concerned donors and supporters mobilized across social media, instead of seizing the opportunity to create and be part of the dialogue.

SJ:  You also have worked for, and are currently supporting, several nonprofits in your community. Can you talk a little about your community outreach work, and why you’re passionate about it?

Jen:  As a small business owner, it’s important for me to stay close to what inspires me, and to find ways to connect with my community.  I was a relative newcomer to Portland when I launched my business in early 2010; volunteering became a great way for me to get to know my new hometown and collaborate with others, which created a nice balance with my day-to-day client work.

As my client workload increased and my business grew, I was committed to continuing to carve out time for volunteerism, but had to get a bit more creative on how to make the time for it.  I started a bimonthly small business marketing workshop series and created the “Brand-om Acts of Kindness” program to offer free marketing training and support to a few nonprofits at each session.  (Note: you can read recaps of many of the topics we covered in these sessions here.)

Then, taking a page from my own advice, I began to realize that I needed more focus in my activism, as it became a struggle to balance and manage my time; I’m sure many fellow small business owners can relate!  As a preschool parent to two 4½ year old twin daughters, early education and children’s health are two causes close to my heart.  I re-focused on these, started a personal activism blog,, to chronicle my learnings and experiences to date, and applied to represent Oregon in the Mom Congress on Education & Learning in Washington, DC.

Since returning from Mom Congress last Spring, I’ve co-founded Books Make It Better, a grassroots early literacy movement in partnership with Parenting Magazine and Reach Out and Read, and created a parent volunteer pilot with Playworks, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing safe and meaningful play in low-income communities. I recently wrote about some of the lessons I’ve learned in “Adventures of an Accidental Activist.”

SJ:  You’ve been busy!  After being exposed to so many great organizations, if you had one piece of advice for a start-up or developing nonprofit, what would it be?

Jen:  Tell Stories!  “Storytelling” has become a big trend and topic in the Branding/Marketing arena, and for good reason: stories create connections, help us find common ground, establish credibility and humanity, and give emotional context to the information we are sharing.

But there’s an even more important reason why storytelling is critical. Research shows that telling stories actually helps people understand the information you are sharing.  In a recent study, the London School of Business found that 5-10% of people retain information when you simply share a statistic, and 25-30% will retain it if you include a story with your statistic. But if you simply tell a story, 65-70% will retain the information you shared. That’s powerful!

Using creative visuals is a great way for nonprofits to tell their stories and share them socially, too. Many nonprofits have embraced the growing infographic trend;  I love Jumpstart’s infographic of The Early Education Crisis and’s on the Importance of Recycling.  Mashable also has one that really inspires me on how Americans are engaging in Social Change.

SJ:  Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!  

Jen is founder of Big Small Brands, a small business marketing firm based in Portland, Oregon, where she brings more than 15 years of corporate, agency, and nonprofit experience to her client work.  You can learn more about Jen’s causes on her blog and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter at @JenUnplugged, @1Oregonmom and @booksbetter.  Learn more about Big Small Brands and findings from her branding workshops here.

Sarah Jordan

Sarah Jordan

Sarah Jordan is the VP of Marketing for PaySimple, the leading provider of service commerce solutions for SMBs. At PaySimple, Sarah leads the company's brand, acquisition, lifecycle, and product marketing strategies, and has been an integral player in growing the company from a fledgling startup to a leading SaaS platform, serving over 15,000 businesses across the country. She loves live music, being outside, great food, and hanging out with her husband, little boy, and dog.

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