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Embracing Culture-Driven Branding In The Non-profit Sector

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One of the most significant challenges the non-profit sector faces is how to provide genuine support without positioning itself as a saviour. It’s a complex, multi-layered issue that can stunt growth, stall initiatives in their tracks and even cause many people to reject the idea of charity altogether. It’s important to consider how this approach is embedded in an organisation’s culture because being charitable shouldn’t mean you erase the agency of the people you’re trying to help.

Traditionally, charities are seen as benevolent organisations that help address some of society’s most pressing needs. While this is nearly always the intention – and, in many cases, the reality – there are times when charitable organisations get things wrong, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

From positions of power, decisions can be made based on limited perceptions of potential solutions. Quite often, these decisions are made without considering the wider cultural context, and it becomes harder still when the teams behind this decision-making are homogenous. It’s no secret that the charity sector lacks diversity, especially at the senior level, which means nuances are missed and well-intentioned campaigns can lack impact at best and cause harm at worst.

To use an analogy, if a large charity is a proverbial lion – powerful and dominant with the loudest roar – other voices are drowned out, so opportunities to hear vital information are lost. Ultimately the lion decides how things play out, and when charities are lions, the communities they purport to serve are most likely to be the ones who are silenced.

So, how do we move away from this concept and find a more empowering way forward?

Recently, we worked with Barnardo’s to develop a brand strategy and identity for a specialist team working to improve outcomes for children and young people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritage. The team wanted to pioneer an inclusive approach in a bid to avoid the pitfalls of previous efforts. They were determined to do things differently so that they could create lasting change in collaboration with the community organisations supporting the young people on the ground and other stakeholders. The team were also determined to focus on culture-driven branding, so that the young people they served felt represented, acknowledged and empowered.

This underlying ethos led us to a bold name for this organisation – Seen. The name is a reference to understanding the communities and individuals being served, acknowledging the incredible work of community organisations, recognising what barriers children and young people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritage face and having the vision for how to address them.

The name and concept also influenced the visual feel of the brand, which features authentic imagery of children and young people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritage. Classic charity imagery leans heavily towards highlighting pain, misery and suffering to encourage potential donors to give generously. The Seen team were determined that in the interests of culture-driven branding, the imagery they used needed to empower, celebrate and champion the young people they wanted to support. When the brand was first revealed to a select focus group, this decision paid off as the young people embraced the imagery whole-heartedly. For them, it elevated the concept of Seen, because they could literally see themselves in the images used. Instead of seeing harsh imagery that represented their communities at their most needy, they recognised a more well-rounded reflection of their identity, individually and as a whole.

Our work with Seen is a great example of why it’s vital to move away from lionised thinking and the elusive, narrowly defined idea of success that comes with it. This becomes even more important when working with marginalised communities, as current systems mean their input is largely ignored – even in spaces where they are being ‘supported’. Instead, embracing a culture-driven branding approach is the key to ensuring we’re cultivating a holistic, inclusive and egalitarian environment where dignity isn’t pushed aside.

Lionised thinking places excessive emphasis on conforming to societal norms and pre-established ideas about what works. When you pivot to culture-driven branding, there’s room to celebrate the unique perspectives of wider communities and empower them by incorporating their values into your brand. Instead of imposing rigid expectations, we have the opportunity to create an environment that values authenticity and contributions from many voices.

At its heart, culture-driven branding is about respect, collaboration and community building. It allows us to learn and grow together. It’s an effective way to be inclusive and it can revolutionise the way we support and empower our audiences. Most importantly, it can also be the first step towards a thriving future where individuality is celebrated, confidence is nurtured and social consciousness is prioritised.


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