Charity Branding - a simple guide

by Andy Pearson in June 6th, 2017

This guide will help you plan for a new or refreshed charity brand. The process is geared towards established organisations focusing on their visual identity but the principles are still relevant for newly established charities embarking on their first branding project.

This guide will help you audit your current brand, scope out your needs and express your preferences. The result will be a clear branding brief that you can take to a design agency to carry out the creative work required.

The four steps to work through are as follow.

  1. Audit your current brand identity
  2. Scope out your needs
  3. Specify visual characteristics
  4. Gather visual examples

We've created a free brand template to accompany this post, available at the end.

What is a charity brand?

‘Brand’ is a complex concept. An organisation's ‘brand’ encompasses many facets including visuals, words, behaviours, emotions and values. Ultimately, a brand is defined by the viewer, not a guidelines document or a comms team. How people perceive you IS your brand. You can try to manage or change that perception but you can’t fully control it. Your 'visual identity' is a component of your overall brand. It comprises all the visual elements that are used in your communications from typefaces and colours to photos and design templates.

A well designed visual identity can help modify and steer public perception of your brand. Without guidelines your visual communication won’t have a cohesive identity and you risk diluting your brand and losing recognition or loyalty. A library of visual assets will help you communicate your intended messages and values. Visuals often communicate things that words alone cannot. Adhering to a set visual language and consistently using visual assets enables you to produce visual material quickly, efficiently and consistently. Consistency enables you to build brand recognition, trust and respect.

1. Audit your current brand identity

Create a communication plan

Before beginning to sort through your visual material it’s worth taking some time to review your charity's communication plan. Visuals should always serve a purpose and therefore need to be planned in the context of your mission, organisational objectives and key messages. If you don’t already have this written down we recommend first reading our guide on How to create a communication plan and complete the associated template.

Review your visual material

Gather a range of visual comms material and review how successful it has been. This includes logo, letterhead, business cards and any annual reports, leaflets or other printed material you have created. Rank items from good to bad, giving reasons for what has worked and what hasn’t. Your needs will most likely have changed and grown over time and your existing brand identity may not have grown with you. Identify areas in which your resources are no longer adequate or areas where you want to increase your visual collateral.

Interview staff and audience members

Before you make any assertions or assumptions based solely on your own views, gain input from others in your charity. Ask your staff how they use your visual brand assets, how they perceive your brand, what they find hard to do and whether they’ve read your charity's brand guidelines. Talk to select constituents with a cross-section of interests from beneficiaries and users to supporters and donors. Ask how they perceive your brand and how they might compare you with your competitors. You will gain insights into how your brand is actually performing.

Collate a list of the problems

Before jumping to solutions, simply list all the problems that you have identified. This will act as a yardstick throughout the creative process through which you can offer objective feedback. Focussing first on your own problems will help to ensure that you don’t simply copy design ideas from other organisations because they look good. Instead, you will have specific things that need addressing that can be measured.

Example problems

Throughout this guide, we will use our client Phoenix Futures to provide a real-world example.

Inconsistent colours: The colour palette has grown over time incorporating colours from sub-brands. Various tints, shades and gradients have been used which dilute the overall visual style and make it feel bland and confused.

Handwritten font: The handwritten font in our logo is not a font we can use on the web. There have been various attempts to reproduce it as well as instances where real handwriting has been used. This all contributes to a lack of cohesion. 

Amateur diagrams: Over time various diagrams and infographics have been created without much forethought which have then gone on to become key to our communications. The style of these doesn’t represent our brand very well.

Use of photos: We have a large photo library but it is quite unorganised. The same few photos get used over and over while others are never used. We rarely if ever apply treatments to photos to enhance them and don’t have any guidelines on creating simple layouts with photos and text.

2. Scope out your needs

Now that you have gathered the visuals, gained wider input and listed specific problems with your charity's current brand you can start to define your needs. Often this can be done in collaboration with a creative agency or freelancer as they will help you determine the right solutions to your problems. Nevertheless, it’s always helpful, when creating a brief, to specify the scope of work you think you need even if it later changes.

Consider which elements you need to work on from the following three categories.

Core identity

These core elements can be the most time consuming to get right because they require high-level decisions and probably won’t change again for many years. The stakes are high so, if you definitely need them, make sure you allow plenty of time and budget. A good visual brand identity refresh can often be achieved with only slight changes to these core components.

Name: A name change will require careful management and clear communication with your constituents. It may require an elongated rollout process to make the transition effectively. 

Logo: A full scale redesign can totally change the face of your organisation. A slight refresh, on the other hand, can normally be achieved without a press release or elongated roll out.

Colours: There are infinite options when it comes to colour. Think about whether you need to retain any existing colours or whether you’re offering a blank canvas to the designer.

Graphical assets

Supporting graphics and other visual elements add depth and versatility to your visual brand identity. It’s worth thinking about what kind of graphical aesthetic is right for you.

Graphic devices: New graphic devices can be a good way to reinforce your visual identity, especially when your logo is not present. You’ll want to ensure any such devices are easy to implement by your staff.

Illustrations: Illustrations, diagrams and icons are very useful stand-alone graphics that are often easy to integrate into content. They need to be contextually relevant so a large library may be needed, or new illustrations may be required over time.

Photos: Photos are a must-have for every organisation. They are often easy to use and add a much needed human element to communications. Use our guidelines on how to Find and optimise images for your website to help with planning your library.


Most agencies will have a standard approach to what they ultimately deliver but take the opportunity to ask and, if necessary, request things that matter to you.

Logo variants: Colour, black and white, inverted, portrait, landscape, square and icon only variants of your logo. These should be covered in the guidelines and given to you as assets.

Assets: Other graphic devices and illustrations in a usable format such as JPG or PNG at a relatively high resolution so you can scale them for different purposes. 

Source files: A copy of the original vector artwork in either .ai .eps or .svg file formats. This is helpful if you want to edit graphics or pass artwork on to another designer. 

Collateral: Templates for printed leaflets, letterheads or business cards in a format that you can work with. 

Social media profiles: As you seek to establish your new Visual ID across all your various channels it may help to have a suite of updated profile and banner images to keep everything consistent. 

Guidelines: All the decisions that have been made to form a coherent Visual ID should be outlined in a single guidelines document for easy reference. If your ID is complex it may be helpful to produce one set for staff with just the basics and another for designers with more detail. 

3. Write down visual characteristics

The overall look and feel of a visual identity needs to be expressed in words before it can be embodied graphically.

Try to characterise what you want to communicate with descriptive words. Be specific and give clear explanations. Look beyond common adjectives like ‘clean’, simple’ or ‘professional’, nobody wants to look dirty, cluttered and amateur so these words don’t really set you apart.

Use words that describe ways in which you are distinctive that couldn’t necessarily be said of other organisations.

Your designer will know how to create a visual language that conveys the adjectives you’ve suggested. You should expect to have a few different initial concepts created to offer the chance to compare and contrast. This is often done by focussing different options on a different key adjectives that you’ve chosen to describe yourself. It can therefore, be helpful for you think about potentially competing priorities so that you get a rich and diverse set of options.


Here is an example of a good set of visual characteristics used to brief a designer.

Example 1

Adjectives: Established, Experienced, Knowledgeable

Explanation: We have been operating for over 45 years, longer than many of our competitors. We have a national network of services that tap into local knowledge and expertise. We can roll our services to a new city in a matter of months and have evidence to support the success of our work on the nation’s largest cities.

Example 2

Adjectives: Impartial, Non-judgemental, Culture-neutral

Explanation: At the heart our organisation is centred on a welcoming and impartial approach to everyone who engages with our services. We maintain the highest confidentiality standards and have staff representing a wide range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Many of our staff are ex-service users who want to give back. Their stories are a key asset to our marketing.

Example 3

Adjectives: Determined, Authoritative, Uncompromising

Examples: We are driven by our statement that recovery is possible and stop at nothing to see this realised in the lives of our service users. We don’t give up on people, we walk with them through every step of their recovery. We know what works and how to help people recover but we can still adapt our processes to meet the needs of individuals.Adventurous Extravagant Life-changingWe believe in shaking things up, taking people out of their comfort zones and creating life-changing experiences. We take people on a journey of recovery and show them what’s possible, what they are capable of.

4. Gather visual examples

Gathering visual inspiration from other sources is a great way to supplement the written characteristics. It enables you to say ‘this is what I mean when I say I want us to look authoritative’ or ‘this is the kind of colour tone that I think would work well to make us look friendly and inviting’. Visual examples of ‘what not to do’ can also be helpful.

If you’re in the process of building a new charity website it’s easy to get drawn into looking at your competitor's sites and focusing on functionality, layout or navigation rather than purely visual communication techniques. Try to stay on topic when looking for visual identity inspiration. Look beyond websites to other communication material.

Here are a few ways in which you can gain visual inspiration from a broad range of sources.

Different spheres: Lookup organisations who operate in different spheres or industries to broaden your perspective on what is possible and what you like. 

Behance: Look on Behance (or other creative forums) for ideas. Search for ‘brand’, ‘visual identity’ as well as some of the visual characteristics you’ve listed above. Often, designers showcase their working which you won’t normally see if you just look at the public website of an organisation that you know.

Subscribe: Subscribe to email lists of organisations you admire and analyse the ‘feel’ of the first few emails you receive. Take note of the language as much as the visuals as that may influence some of the adjectives you use to describe yourself in the above section. 

Search for guidelines: Search for brand guidelines of larger organisations you admire. They often make them available online in order to help supporters and fundraisers follow the rules.

Download the template

We have created a simple template that will help you to manage the process of rebranding in your charity.

Download the charity re-brand strategy template

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