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Finding recognition...at last: suppose your association and its members do great work all across the country, but nobody seems to know about it. What can you do to build a national reputation? (Branding).

In 1996, the National Association of Community Action Agencies (NACAA) board of directors, a 16-member body composed of executive directors of local community action agencies, made attaining national visibility a priority. Our board members believed that national recognition could attract more private sponsors, corporate funding, and brand alliances to our cause--combating poverty in the United States.

NACAA, established in 1972, represents the interests of approximately 1,000 independent community action agencies with a staff of 12 and a budget of about $2 million. "How do we get this country to recognize a successful national network of community action agencies that for 40 years has helped millions of Americans across the country?" we wondered.

Can we jump three hurdles?

To achieve national brand recognition, we knew we would have to first overcome three hurdles:

1. Each member agency is locally governed, responding to the unique needs of its community and tailoring programs and services to fit local opportunities. Established in 1964 under the Economic Opportunity Act signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, community action agencies were created to "eliminate poverty in the midst of plenty."

In rural Oklahoma, a community action agency operates the primary transportation system in the county. In New York City, the local agency administers more than 300 programs in five boroughs. The strength of the network-customized to each community-posed an obstacle to achieving national recognition.

2. Community action agencies are known by hundreds of different names across the country. Some agencies, created in the tumultuous days of the mid-sixties, wanted to avoid the appearance of being identified as the center of community unrest. Although designated by federal law as community action agencies, hundreds chose distinctive names that obscured their connection to our larger nationwide antipoverty network.

Many chose the name "Community Action Agency of...." Others selected names that formed acronyms that were oblique references to self-sufficiency: words such as LIFT, HOPE, or ACTION. Such names make it difficult to connect a single agency to the larger national network in the same way that local chapters of the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, or United Way are recognized as being part of a large national entity.

3. The community action agencies displayed different images as logos.

NACAA and many member agencies used a pinwheel with an upright arrow in the center as their official logo. The pinwheel represented the diverse segments of the community, and the arrow represented the upward mobility of those we serve. However, because NACAA had never developed corporate identity guidelines, hundreds of agencies used their own unique logos or no logo at all.

Planning the branding process

National recognition for our network was long overdue-if we could figure out how to overcome these issues. The answer started to take shape in the spring of 2000, when I attended a one-day ASAE seminar called "Genuine Brands." I was amazed to hear Duane Knapp, president of BrandStrategy, Inc., Anacortes, Washington, talk about branding an association the way manufacturers brand consumer products and services.

Meeting with Knapp after the seminar, we began the process of planning a national branding campaign, asking questions such as, "Can we really brand community action agencies?" and "Do we brand our association (NACAA) or do we brand individual agencies?" Realizing we were in for a long process, we identified a core team to work on the brand assessment evaluation process. The branding team, an essential component of any brand strategy, consisted of our executive director, four key staff members, and the communications committee chair of our national board.

The team worked closely with Knapp throughout the summer and fall of 2000, to develop a timeline and a work plan divided into four action areas:

1. Survey constituents. To find out exactly who knew what about community action agencies, we developed a survey that asked: "What does community action mean to our various target audiences? What do people feel when they think of community action? Who outside the network has heard of a community action agency?" We needed those answers before we could begin.

We organized focus groups at the association's state meetings. We asked questions of our corporate and political contacts. We requested that every staff person in our national office and each of our community action agencies complete the survey. We encouraged our board members to interview their clients. The responses were both striking and comforting.

Despite being an incredibly diverse network, similar themes emerged--hope, change, compassion, respect, and caring. People who knew about or had worked in community action knew that community action helps people, cares about community, and changes people's lives. But the public didn't know we existed, despite helping 10 million people a year.

2. Develop a promise. The next step was to develop our promise, the core values that define who we are and set us apart from the crowd. "To be a genuine brand," says Knapp, "you must have a promise that everyone in the organization lives and breathes."

With our very large and diverse network, what words could we all agree on? Was it possible to craft those words into a creed that we could all live with and live by? Following several weeks of brainstorming, the promise became real, the words rang true, and we knew that we had captured the essence of community action: "Community Action changes people's lives, embodies the spirit of hope, improves communities, and makes America a better place to live. We care about the entire community, and we are dedicated to helping people help themselves and each other."

The promise applies just as appropriately to the smallest and most rural agency as it does to the largest and most urban. We came up with a combination byline and tagline that describes the essential characteristics of community action: "Helping People. Changing Lives." It sums up our promise, it tells who we are, and it says what we do.

3. Consider a new name. The National Association of Community Action Agencies was long, and the acronym NACAA had little or no meaning to anyone outside of our network or circle of partners. Our core branding team began to explore other possibilities.

The team struggled with how to create a distinct brand for community action. We wondered, "Should we brand our association, or do we try to brand 1,000 local agencies that already have hundreds of different names?" We had no answer--until one of the team members suggested Community Action Partnership. The initial reaction was, "What kind of name is that for a national association? What does that mean?"

As we talked and continued to search for the perfect name, Community Action Partnership started to take on new meaning. Why not? Our goal is positive community action, and we do business, both on the national and local levels, through partnerships. We partner with federal agencies, state and local governments, local community-based organizations, financial institutions, and the people and the families we serve.

Community Action Partnership fit.

4. Create a logo. We knew that it would be more difficult to obtain consensus on a logo than on the promise or even a new name. A logo is personal. It's visual and can be interpreted by a hundred people in a hundred different ways.

After selecting a design firm, we spent a half-day with the design team members so they understood who we are and what community action is all about. The firm submitted several designs. Within a few days, the branding team settled on two designs to present to the board of directors.

We also decided to poll our membership at our 2001 annual meeting in Kansas City and request feedback on the logos and the name Community Action Partnership. About 800 members responded, forming an over-whelming consensus for one version of the logo. Based on the feedback, we asked the design firm to develop a final version of the logo. At the December 2001 meeting, the board of directors endorsed an official name and logo change.

Campaigning for a new brand

The year 2002 was pivotal for our organization. Working with a budget of $200,000, which came out of our operating funds, reserves, and revenue from the brand symposia, we disseminated information each month to our members: newsletter articles; fax updates entitled, "Brand Countdown"; and letters keeping our members informed of our progress. We applied to the appropriate regulatory agency to trademark our new logo.

We worked with the design firm to develop a toolkit: a "Logo Usage and Graphics Standards" style guide. Because our national board wanted to move toward network unity, we decided to restrict use of the new logo to members of the community action network and to enforce use and reproduction requirements.

The style guide also included options to retain local identity and logos but still identify with the national brand by using the new logo as a halo. We wanted to make the migration to a new brand as easy as possible. The association also encouraged local agencies to identify with national through name changes--Community Action Partnership of Hudson County, for example.

In the style guide, we included camera-ready slicks, a CD containing several formats of the new logo, tip sheets, and a style guideline insert that explained our new standards: size, color, typography, and templates. We packaged everything together with sample news releases and op-eds for our members to use to introduce the new brand to their local partners and mailed the toolkit in the spring of 2002.

Members must decide

According to our bylaws, a legal name change had to be approved by the general membership at our next annual meeting, which would occur in September 2002. From spring 2002 until the vote in New York City, our mission was clear: educate, inform, train, and explain. Sell the brand, focus on the promise, encourage the use of the new logo, and work with Duane Knapp to present regional brand symposia across the country.

During that period, we hired a new president, Derrick Len Span. One of his first activities was a brand symposium presented by Knapp in Alabama. After that, Span became convinced that the adoption of a single community action brand was not only a priority, but also a necessity.

Support grew. Many of the nonbelievers, who, understandably, wanted to keep their local identities, began to see the wisdom in becoming a genuine and unified brand. The message resonated with our membership. We could never achieve the national visibility that we deserved with hundreds of different names and logos.

We received letters, reports, and newsletters weekly from agencies that were changing their name to Community Action Partnership or adding the national halo brand to their local identities.

Yet a vocal opposition remained. We knew that if the vote to amend the bylaws and legally change our name failed, we could still change our logo and use the name Community Action Partnership on our materials--as long as we retained the official name National Association of Community Action Agencies. But without a successful vote, those would be hollow changes.

At our annual meeting, Duane Knapp gave an eminently convincing, rational, and extremely motivational keynote address on the need for a unified brand. Marcia Plater, chair of the communications committee and the champion of our brand initiative for the past three years, led the assembled group of 1,600 in a reading of the community action promise. In his speech, National President Derrick Span emphasized unity, visibility, and the community action promise.

We made the results of the vote public on Wednesday, September 4, 2002. The bylaw amendment passed by a resounding margin, making the name change official. We are the Community Action Partnership.

What now?

Now the rest of the work begins. With Knapp's guidance, we continue to develop training for the culturalization process. Our two-year plan involves on-site and Web-based training on living the promise and embracing the new brand. Our goal is to become a unified brand, with all 1,000 community action agencies on board, when we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of community action in 2004.

Member agencies are coming on board each day. We are going to transform the community action landscape, building a strong human services network that is recognizable anywhere in the country.

You haven't heard of the Community Action Partnership yet? Just wait. You will.

RELATED ARTICLE: Disarming the Naysayers

Did we get negative feedback from naysayers who opposed our branding campaign? You bet. In fact, we got so many letters that we adopted five techniques for dealing with members who wrote to us, opposing our actions:

1. Acknowledge their concerns;

2. Respond straightforwardly and honestly;

3. Explain the association's case for branding clearly, underscoring the universal acceptance of the agreed-upon promise;

4. Remind opponents that the national brand is not about the logo-it's about the promise; and

5. Indicate a willingness to talk or meet with members in person.

Avril F. Weisman is the national vice president of the Community Action Partnership in Washington, D.C. E-mail: aweisman@communityactionpartnership.com.
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Author:Weisman, Avril F.
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
Words:2165
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