Your Nonprofit Mission Isn’t as Obvious as You Think

I recently stumbled upon something that really made me stop and think. It’s about how small and medium-sized nonprofits often miss a profound piece of the branding equation: they assume everyone automatically gets what they do.

It’s subtle and almost universally overlooked. It’s the assumption that an organization’s mission is self-evident. 

Imagine this: I was chatting with the executive director of a well-regarded regional symphony orchestra about defining a unique brand for her orchestra. I asked, “So, what does the word orchestra actually mean?”She looked stunned.

This simple question unveiled a significant blind spot. The assumption was that the concept of an orchestra — a large instrumental ensemble typical of classical music, known for its string, brass, woodwind, and percussion sections — needed no explanation. Yet, this assumption overlooked a critical aspect of branding and communication.

It was a lightbulb moment — not only for her but also for me. This belief that the essence of an orchestra — or any nonprofit, for that matter — is universally understood. It’s one of the biggest mistakes any organization can make.

When you’re so close to something, like a living and breathing orchestra, it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows what a live symphonic performance looks and feels like. Not everyone understands the magic of musicians coming together to create an extraordinary musical experience.

And that’s exactly where the problem lies. Assuming that your mission, impact, and raison d’être are self-evident can lead to some pretty uninspired communication. It’s like, “Hey, we’re an orchestra. We play music. Come support us.” 

But why? What makes your orchestra the one to watch, the one to support, the one that’s making a real difference in the community?

This whole conversation made me realize how crucial it is for nonprofits, especially small and medium-sized organizations struggling for recognition and support, to assume nothing.

Examine every word in your mission, especially the ones whose meanings go without saying

Those are the ones you need to worry about.

For this regional symphony orchestra, and indeed for any nonprofit facing this challenge, the path forward involves a deep and often uncomfortable questioning of basic assumptions. It requires leaders to step back and view their organization through the eyes of someone completely unfamiliar with their work. 

How would you explain the concept of an orchestra to someone who has never experienced classical music? How do you convey the transformative power of a live symphonic performance, the intricate weaving of melodies and harmonies, and the emotional journey it can take an audience on?

So, the next time you’re thinking about your nonprofit and how to share your story, ask yourself the “orchestra” question

What does it mean to be an orchestra, and why should anyone care? 

Turn up the volume by remembering my #1 rule for nonprofit branding:

Assume nothing.