Good local branding, it turns out, maybe be one of the keys to surviving in competitive urban districts. If your organization is going to rise from the ranks of the many non-profits vying for the same limited funding, you can’t afford to be “the best kept secret in town.”
In the District of Columbia, the District Public School system’s support of middle school afterschool programming is simply not sufficient to respond to students and families’ needs. As in many cities across the country, the city government’s support is focused on elementary schools, where parents desperately need a safe environment for their little ones when the bell rings at 3pm. Moreover, the emerging trend in D.C. philanthropy targets efforts at the early childhood grades, believing that’s where intervention really counts. And, there simply aren’t enough organizations offering daily, comprehensive programming to middle school. This leaves an extremely vulnerable age group underserved at a critical time when they are making decisions to pursue high school and college. The trouble is, developmentally, they don’t have the maturity to evaluate long-term consequences.
From my years serving as a member of the District government, there were a number of organizational characteristics I looked when matching schools’ needs and non-profits’ offerings that indicated to me an organization that could “make it” in this competitive environment: strong and unique program offerings rooted in best practices and a fundamental understanding of niche community. Did they market themselves as a relevant local brand that fundamentally understood the community they were in? To positively identify this fundamental understanding, the single proxy indicator for that was flexibility. Hearing an organization say, “What do you need?” signaled a true partnership mentality and, in my view, helped the organization emerge among all others as a good match. It was this flexibility that demonstrated a willingness to “get things done” because they knew the local landscape’s quirks.
Now, being on “the other side” as the Executive Director of ASAS DC, it’s even more abundantly clear to me how critical it is that we create a strong local brand that signals to the district, to philanthropic partners, but most importantly to the school sites we serve that we can help address their students’ unique needs.
To acquire this flexibility and hyper-local understanding that enables an organization to be a reputable local brand, I strongly believe that an NPO must understanding of the overall city and city government’s trends and needs. Talking to city officials, offering to participate in working groups on youth development issues with the same officials, and testifying at council hearings or city government meetings not only to supports the advocacy efforts for issues important to our youth, but build this critically important local brand.
A more “global” understanding, will complement this deep local know-how. The sweet spot is when a brand can articulate how they contribute to solutions that go beyond the local school community. It’s a delicate balance to run high-quality programming, to articulate the larger social impact, be flexible and adapt services and model to address local concerns and still maintain the brand – but when an organization hits those facets, they emerge as a clear front runner in their space.
Our goal, therefore, is to ensure that ASAS’s brand is synonymous with excellence in youth development. We can be a game changer that levels the playing field and closes the opportunity gap for their middle schoolers – and it comes down to tight programs armed with a knockout brand.