great nonprofit logo

What Makes a Great Nonprofit Logo?

Nothing invites dissent within a nonprofit organization like trying to settle on the perfect logo. Lots of people have ideas about what makes a great nonprofit logo. You may have not only staff but your board of directors and important donors offering input. Many of these stakeholders feel an emotional attachment to your brand identity, unlike they may have with most for-profit corporations.

Money is always top of mind, too, of course. Nonprofits strive to keep overhead down, so the costs of reprinting letterhead, brochures, and business cards can sound prohibitive. Even paying a designer might bother some stakeholders. Smaller nonprofits, especially those with a grassroots vibe, may feel tempted to tackle a redesign in-house. (Usually not a good idea.)

If you have decided to redesign your nonprofit logo, do it right. This is a chance to tell your story.


Elements of a Great Nonprofit Logo

The website Top Nonprofits says that a great nonprofit logo should be aesthetically pleasing, distinctive, memorable, timeless, scalable, simple enough for use with multiple mediums, adaptable to color or black and white, and should communicate qualities of the brand. Whew! Can you accomplish all of that?

Those all sound like important qualities for any logo, not just one for a nonprofit. Now add one key element, arguably the most important, for nonprofits: Emotion.

As a nonprofit, you want to harness all of the above and tell your story. The Chronicle of Philanthropy says, “[Your logo] should not just be instantly recognizable but also offer a clear and compelling narrative that people will remember.” The logo of the American Red Cross is immediately recognizable, and the red cross emblem appears all over the world. Thanks to decades of use, even this simple logo carries emotion. Your brand new logo will not immediately evoke the same response.


The Simplicity Paradox

We generally want to keep logos simple. Yet, as you see above, your goals are anything but. You can probably rattle off a list of 15 recent accomplishments by your organization, as well as its mission, vision, and complete history. You want to say it all with a few words and visual elements. One way to tackle this seemingly impossible task is to choose each element carefully.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy advises, “If you are going to use multiple shapes, colors, etc., then know why you are doing what you’re doing. Every element counts, and you should be able to explain to anyone what each piece means.” Accept that not every person who looks at your logo will see everything that you’re trying to say. And you won’t get to sit beside each potential donor and explain it to them. Identify the one or two things you want the average person on the street to take away.


Practice Telling Your Story

A great nonprofit logo tells a story. Before you can tell your story, you have to know what it is. You can arrive at the simplicity described above by telling your story over and over. Tell it aloud, in writing, or through pictures. If you’re an arts organization, why not tell it through dance or song? Enlist the help of your staff, members, donors, or board.

Brainstorm as you practice telling your nonprofit’s story. What can you leave out, and what must you include? It may be a literal story with a beginning, middle, and end. Or it might be a present tense statement about what you do every day. You’ll figure out how best to capture the right emotions. Words may not be enough. You may arrive at a color or image that perfectly conveys a key emotion. You’ll eventually get to the heart of the story, and know what should be reflected in your logo.

For an example of a logo that tells a story in a fairly literal way, consider the Wounded Warrior Project. One soldier carries another to safety. For a more abstract example look at the logo for Mind, a mental health organization. From left to right, the logo flows from confusion to beautifully flowing text, suggested of easing confused thoughts or feelings.


The Story of the Problem vs. the Solution

Throughout your communications materials, using your brand voice, you may have already decided which way you will motivate supporters. Some nonprofits emphasize the seriousness of their cause by unabashedly sharing images that haunt, sadden, and even frighten the viewer. They’ve decided this strategy works for them. Think shivering, emaciated dogs chained up outdoors. Other organizations place more emphasis on the end results of their work. Taking this tack, an animal rescue might showcase pet owners adopting rescued dogs, now happy and healthy even if missing a leg. Your approach forms your brand and, as such, should inspire your logo.


Don’t Design Your Logo in a Vacuum

Except in rare instance, people will not see your logo by itself. It will appear on your website, printed materials, signage, and other materials. It will usually accompany some kind of text, video, or photos. Think through how all of the elements of your brand will work together to support your logo. Consider whether you’ll use a tagline with the logo, and if you’ll use a “brandmark” version absent the organization name.


Donors Don’t Give to a Logo

A common temptation for nonprofits is to try to appeal to all potential donors, in all demographics. Frequently, organizations are trying to reach new, younger donors without alienating older, longtime donors. Your great nonprofit logo doesn’t have to be all things to all people. Remember again that it will appear in context with a lot of other information. Stick to your story. Donors will pay attention to a story that resonates with them. If you put your story in false packaging, so to speak, people will only be disappointed with what they find inside.


Don’t Update Your Logo Just Because it’s Old

There are reasons to update a logo. Your tenth anniversary isn’t necessarily one of those reasons. Neither is hiring a new marketing director or running out of letterhead. Nonprofits update their logos for all kinds of reasons, many of which boil down to ego. Someone wants to put their own new spin on something with the belief that new is better. Check out what happened when the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego literally removed the “old” from its name and changed its logo. It changed back a year later.

Update your logo because it no longer tells your story accurately (or because it never did). If your mission has evolved or expanded, you should ask yourself whether your logo tells your current story.

If you really just crave a “fresh, new look,” consider making minor tweaks to your existing logo. Simply playing with alignment, kerning, and color–with the guidance of an experienced designer–can make modernize your look. Take a look at these examples from Branded 4 Good.


If you’ve decided to update your nonprofit logo, do so carefully. Your organization will live with the results for a long time. For inspiration, here are what Top Nonprofits considers the best nonprofit logos of 2016.


IMAGE: CC0 Public Domain

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