Howard Adam Levy is Principal of Red Rooster Group, a New York City-based branding, marketing and design agency for nonprofits. Howard, who began working with nonprofits as a graphic designer in 1991, founded the agency 10 years ago. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of and a frequent contributor to the MKCREATIVEnonprofit blog.
MKC: What is most challenging about branding nonprofits?
HOWARD: Nonprofits face a wide variety of constituents, from clients, referral sources, donors, partner organizations, board members and others. So a lot more is involved in reaching out and developing messages and strategies for each of those audiences.
Businesses, especially small businesses, can make unilateral decisions on their marketing. Nonprofits are typically more consensus oriented. And particularly when it comes to the brand, you really want to get everyone’s input and have a feeling that everyone is contributing to the process of what we’re all about. So you need a process that can build consensus in a politically neutral environment and get everyone feeling really good about the brand and their role as brand ambassadors.
MKC: Did Red Rooster Group begin as a branding agency?
HOWARD: We did. We saw the need for small and mid-sized nonprofit organizations to really strengthen their communications. Actually I started working with small and medium-sized nonprofit organizations 20 years ago, before websites, so it was all print work at the time, but the need was really the same. Organizations needed to create a cohesive message and a professional look, so that people clearly understood what it was doing and its impact in the community.
MKC: Why did you choose to specialize in nonprofits? What’s the appeal for you?
HOWARD: This is what I want to be doing – building value for society. I could really see no better way of spending my time than working with organizations that are doing just that. I didn’t intend to wait until there was a personal tragedy to say this is what’s really important in life, or wait until the end of the career and say, I want to give back. I’ve chosen to work in the trenches with groups who need the help, and try to give them as much support as possible.
MKC: When you first talk to prospective clients, what are the issues they are bringing to you?
HOWARD: Usually there’s some level of maturity that they’re reaching, and they realize they need to get more serious about their brand at this point. They’ve been operating successfully, more or less, for a number of years, without really paying attention to how well they’re communicating or how they’re coming off professionally. One day they wake up and realize their foundation grants or their government contracts are being cut back and they need to be more proactive in approaching individual donors, and without paying attention to how they’re coming across, they won’t be successful. So they start to think about their mission statement, their tagline, how to tell their story in a compelling way, how the logo looks, how well the website is engaging donors, and how well their email and newsletters are telling people what they’re all about. They realize they’ve got to get serious about this. A lot of groups are out there vying for attention, and unless you’re looking professional and you have a good message and you know how to capture people’s attention, your viability for fundraising is going to be really limited.
MKC: Have the issues that clients bring to you changed much since you started 20 years ago?
HOWARD: I’m seeing more sophisticated issues in terms of nuanced things. A number of organizations have challenges distinguishing between the organization name and the program name. In cases where the program is really the star of the show, when the organization tries to go for funding people say, ‘we’ve never heard of you.’ They can showcase that one program, but then the other programs are neglected, and they want to be able to get funding on the basis of all the programs. So that’s one of the newer challenges we‘ve seen.
MKC: What about the solutions? Obviously social media wasn’t around 20 years ago in the same way, so I guess you’re doing different things for nonprofits now than you used to do.
HOWARD: The landscape definitely has shifted. I think people are more proactive about fundraising in different ways. Direct mail and telemarketing – can you believe that 50 years ago telemarketing was the main method? It’s almost inconceivable now. But yeah, the social media landscape has certainly shifted, and the tactics have shifted as people are online more. Nonprofits are engaging with the world in different ways, such as shorter campaign-type solutions, and engaging people through Facebook and other social media is becoming more standard. Personally, I think investing in the brand for the long term is really more significant than short-term campaigns. If you’re relying on the short-term tactics, you’re not really thinking about building up a long-term constituency, a long-term donor base that’s going to give to you at higher levels. And that’s where I think it’s really important for some nonprofits to think about investing: How could we really build the pool of donors who are going to give to us at a high level on a regular basis? And how do we bring those people into our world? Social media is a step toward that, certainly toward engaging younger people, and bringing them into the nonprofits’ world.
MKC: Could you elaborate on why nonprofits should invest in themselves?
HOWARD: There’s often a scarcity mentality at nonprofits that says, ‘we’re a charity and we should not be paying our people a lot of money because they’re doing this for the good of it, and we should try to channel as much money as possible to the mission.’ I think that is not necessarily the best way to run an organization for the long term. To be a sustainable organization you need to think like a business. That means, how are you going to remain in business next year? That means investing in yourself: investing in your staff by paying them enough money that they’ll stay with you and build institutional knowledge; building the systems that can take you to the next level; investing in your board; investing in technology; investing in your brand and your marketing. All those things will show a funder, whether an individual donor, a corporation, a foundation or the government, that you’re a viable entity, you can weather economic downturns, you can weather the times when giving levels are not as high. It shows that you’re building leadership for the next generation, investing in yourself so you can do your mission more effectively and actually solve the problems you’ve set out to solve. Of 1.6 million nonprofit organizations, 85% have under $250,000 in annual revenue. A huge number of those groups will go out of business because they can’t afford to stay in business. It’s a shame. Nonprofits have to build for sustainability. It really does pay to invest in your organization.
You can learn more about Howard and Red Rooster Group at his website and .
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.