What is the purpose of NGO branding in the field?

“The Constellation? I have never heard of that NGO. And your approach is being used in 26 countries in thousands of communities?” I heard this comment dozens of times and I like it. I like this low profile and want to keep it this way. It is not about us as an organization, it’s about the communities and their progress. If there is one thing useful to brand, it’s the approach (SALT/ CLCP) communities use to progress, but it’s certainly not about some Belgian NGO and its branding.

Let me take you to beautiful West-Africa. In a 4WD car with big Global Fund stickers on the side, we are driving from Bamako to Segou through the dusty green fields of central Mali. It is watermelon season and smiling women regularly offer the enormous green fruits. Every time we pass a village, I see several signposts with descriptions of development projects and every time there are well-painted logo’s of large bilateral donors or NGOs. I have seen it in all the African countries I have worked in. Below one of the many examples I found on the web. I always thought this branding was normal. It’s just the way it is. But today, I asked myself:

What is the purpose of the organizational branding of NGOs/ donors in the field and is it actually contributing to sustainable local response?

Much research has been done on NGO branding , but research never checked whether local branding in the field is actually contributing to development. I worked in marketing before. In my time with Unilever in Mozambique, I learned the importance of building brands and gaining visibility and market share. In the development sector, I don’t see the same rationale. I am not talking about the branding in the North in terms of fundraising. The arguments are clear for that. But why should NGOs build brands locally in the field? Eventually, we want communities to sustainably respond to their challenges, we want them to start taking action, we want them to feel good about themselves and keep momentum to sustain their response. Ideally, we don’t want them to think in terms of our progress is linked to an external brand or think in terms of a ‘project with a timeline’.

In my experience, organizational branding can be counterproductive to local response. If we are too present as a supporting organization and actively build our brand locally, we risk that when we leave, the local response stops. Imagine all signs, project material, cars, t-shirts, caps etc have the NGO/ donor’s logo and is build around the organization providing the project. A community might perceive that their local response is inherently linked to this organization and its branding. And thus when all this leaves, the local response can stop as well. If we truly want to encourage sustainability, then we need to catalyse the local response. Like a midwife helping a woman to give birth. And for catalyzing, it’s best NOT to leave to many branded footprints.

Or is the argument to show to others, our donors or our citizens, what we have achieved or where we work? If that is the reason, I think it’s time to show these people that this sometimes competitive branding in the field is counterproductive to a sustainable local response. With some efforts, we can make this clear.

So today I was imagining a non-branded development sector in Mali. No stickers on cars, still signs in the field, but with only the community logo, not the NGO logo. No more notebooks, pens, calendars, clocks with donor marketing. Only community-generated and community-owned branding. Communities can even develop their logo for this response! And gradually, we as NGOs become catalysers that gently, but firmly ignite local responses through facilitation of programs. Near the end of the program, we smoothly diminish the intensity of the support. We still accompany them, but they are now running the complete show. The communities wouldn’t even remember which NGO catalysed their great response or what the project timeline was. Wouldn’t that be real development? And with the millions of savings, we can support community branding!

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Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on May 3, 2011 at 11:35pm
Thanks for sharing this Gaston! Amen. The last paragraph really sends the message home. I've included a link to it on my blog.
Comment by Elvis Simamvwa on November 3, 2010 at 3:18pm
You really represent the world I want to live in, Communities can Brand an organisation more effectively!
'The only person who starts at the top is the grave digger'
Comment by YERUVA ANTHONY REDDY on October 27, 2010 at 11:06pm
Yes ideally it is necessary. But often brand building starts from the Donor and percolates down to the NGOs. And these days every one is interested in identity and acknowledgement. I see a link here with appreciation may be the NGOs interested to get back their appreciation. But if it is costing the sustainability yes it is important that NGOs work for community brand building.
Comment by Gaston on October 27, 2010 at 12:20pm
Yes, I could have substituted 'NGO' by 'Donor'. Same accounts for bilateral and mutlilateral donors that we see all the time on signs in the field.
Comment by wiwin winarni on October 27, 2010 at 8:23am
Great sharing and viewpoint Gaston! I do agree with you. I find similar situation also that community need still our support as legitimate acknowledgment that the community is empowered. You remind me that they, the local indigenous, that could assure them self about sustainability. That the approach, we as facilitators who introduced is just right. But then how could it work and ignite more support and sustained commitment is the community's roles. And of course we could use money allocated to branding to scaling up project to more communities.
My other question is that, is the same perspective also could be risen to donor to whom we ask for support?

Best Regards

Wiwin

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