Non-profit organizations are typically dedicated to noble and worthy causes. They are known for their missions, and they depend on donors and volunteers to accomplish their goals. Constituents expect non-profit organizations to devote as much of their resources as possible to meeting those goals. Chances are they don't see marketing as a necessity.
Nonetheless, non-profits compete for a consumer's attention, just like any other organization. They compete with other non-profits for charitable contributions of all kinds: monetary donations, corporate support, and the time of volunteers, who are often the backbone of the organization's ability to get things done.
As a result, non-profits have increasingly recognized the importance of marketing and branding. International non-profits understand that, in many respects, their value is determined by their global public image. Constituents may not think of the organization they support as a "brand," but a brand image can be essential to a non-profit.
Everyone has his or her own favorite cause, but when it comes to universal awareness of non-profits, only a handful of brands stand out on the world's stage. Brands such as the Red Cross, UNICEF, and World Wildlife Fund are examples. One brand that consistently rises to the top is Habitat for Humanity International, often referred to simply as "Habitat."
Five years ago, Interbrand conducted a study of Habitat's brand value. Interbrand identified nine drivers of brand value, which included such attributes as its heritage, local impact, spiritual motivation, and tangible result. Interbrand used a formula to determine a brand index and then calculated a "brand strength score." Habitat was found to have a net present value of future brand earnings (essentially the brand's operating income) of US$ 1.8 billion. (At the time, this was equal to the brand value of Starbucks.)
What is it about the Habitat brand that puts it in the same league as Starbucks, one of the most recognizable brands on the planet? For the answer, we have to start at the beginning.
The seed for Habitat grew in a farming community called Koinonia Farm, founded by biblical scholar and farmer Clarence Jordan in 1942, outside Americus, Georgia. Millard and Linda Fuller left a comfortable life in Alabama to enter into Christian service and visited Koinonia Farm in 1965. It was there that Millard Fuller and Jordan developed the concept of "partnership housing," pairing people who needed housing with volunteers who helped them build simple, decent homes.
The houses were built with no profit added and no interest charged. They were paid for by a revolving "Fund for Humanity," a fund that did not distribute money but rather financed the housing.
In 1968, 42 half-acre house sites, accompanied by four acres of land for recreational use, were laid out by Koinonia Farm. Capital was donated from around the country to start the work. Homes were built and sold to families in need at no profit and with no interest. This was the basic model for what became Habitat for Humanity in 1976.
One of the myths Habitat dispells on its website is the common one that the organization was founded by former US President Jimmy Carter. In 1984, Carter and his wife Rosalynn got involved with Habitat, whose headquarters was located just eight miles from the Carters' home in Plains, Georgia. While the Carters did not found the organization, their high profile and continued involvement has brought a significant brand boost to Habitat. Each year they lead the Jimmy Carter Work Project to help build houses and raise awareness of the need for affordable housing.
While Habitat remains a Christian ministry, it has transcended its roots and become an ecumenical organization that provides housing to people regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. Volunteers need not be of Christian faith to join Habitat.
One of the strengths of the Habitat brand is its unique mission. In the non-profit world, one can find organizations working on behalf of the environment, animal welfare, cancer, AIDS, poverty, and numerous other causes. Very few, however, share Habitat's mission and the manner in which it is carried out.
Habitat offers a homeownership opportunity to families unable to obtain conventional house financing—generally, those whose income is 30 to 50 percent of the area's median income. In most cases, Habitat homeowner families make a $500 down payment and contribute 300 to 500 hours of "sweat equity" on the construction of their home or someone else's home. Because Habitat houses are built using donations of land, material, and labor, mortgage payments are kept affordable.
In this sense, Habitat is not a traditional charity; instead of giving away money, it directly engages the eventual beneficiary, the homeowner, in the charitable endeavor. Homeowners may end up helping other homeowners build homes. This creates a sense of ownership and pride, as well as a deep commitment to helping others.
Habitat's organizational structure is a strength when it comes to its mission, but it could be a weakness in controlling the brand image. Habitat operates through locally governed, independent non-profit affiliates with a strong emphasis on grassroots organizations and local autonomy. This means that every organization determines its own need for local services; however, it also means that the Habitat brand can be compromised if the local organization does not adhere to Habitat's mission, public image, and brand guidelines.
This had to have been a concern when, in 2005, Habitat was approaching its 30th anniversary and decided to introduce a new logo. Habitat said that while the organization had 90 percent name recognition, "only about 10 percent recognized the former logo." The organization explained the need for a new logo as follows:
"The former logo, featuring two people with upraised arms sheltering a house, has served Habitat well for a number of years, but it was too similar to other marks to allow it to be registered and protected. The new blue and green logo, featuring three people with raised and interlocked arms beneath a sheltering roof, provides for protective registration and will establish a unified look among all Habitat for Humanity affiliates, regardless of size, location, or length of affiliation."
Habitat contributed to its international profile by building houses after the Asian tsunami, but its public persona may have been somewhat damaged after Hurricane Katrina because of the slow progress made in building homes in the hardest hit areas. This perception is unfortunate, since it was not Habitat's responsibility to reconstruct destroyed homes, but rather the federal government's. In fact, Habitat has helped build over 700 homes in the affected Gulf Coast region but has been hampered by government inefficiency, high costs, and building regulations.
It's unlikely, though, that any such temporary criticism can tarnish a brand with the exceptional awareness and pristine image of Habitat for Humanity International.