Reputation management for nonprofits: How trust can save your organization

In January 2016, the veteran-serving nonprofit organization known as the Wounded Warrior Project faced a massive scandal over its alleged misuse of donor funding.

The effects on WWP’s reputation were catastrophic: the Internet rioted, donors pulled funding, and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance suspended WWP’s charity seal designation until it could launch a full-scale investigation into the organization’s spending history.

At first, it looked like all was lost. Over two years, their donations dropped by more than $160 million. Today, more than three years after the initial scandal, the organization is still recovering financially. However, continued support from its donors shows the strength of its reputation as a charity, even in the midst of scandal. This is the impressive impact of solid reputation management.

What is reputation management?

Online reputation management is done through social media, review monitoring, and more. identifies reviews, social media, forums, press releases, blogs, and competitor analysis as some of the most important facets of online reputation management.

Reputation management is a catch-all term for the social media monitoring, donor relations, and C-suite behaviors that contribute to an organization’s overall public persona.

A good reputation sets an organization apart as dependable and industry-strong. A bad one can exile it to the clickbait nation of scam reports, aggressive reviews, and public scandal.

How is reputation management different for nonprofits?

In an industry where survival and success come from donations, a nonprofit must establish itself as trustworthy, legitimate, and worth supporting.

To see the difference between nonprofit and for-profit reputation management, just look at Nestle.

The nutrition giant has faced numerous scandals over the past few decades, from its predatory infant formula advertising practices to the environmental and social impact of its negligent water-bottling operations.

Although it has won few battles and lost many wars, Nestle has still come out on top financially. In part, this is because of its strong reputation as a source of nutritious, delicious foodstuffs for families.

Meanwhile, nonprofits like the Wounded Warrior Project suffer near-catastrophic impact from a single C-suite scandal. A major difference here is the sheer size of a company like Nestle. But when it comes down to it, the company has invested decades of work and funding into its reputation as a family-focused nutrition brand.

How can a nonprofit best manage its reputation?

One of the most important facets of maintaining a solid reputation as a nonprofit is the idea of donor relations—a strong, personal relationship with donors can help build trust between your organization and its supporters.

Although the stakes may seem much higher, nonprofits can build and manage their reputations following the same basic steps as for-profit companies.

  1. Establish a brand identity—and stick to it. Be an organization your donors trust, believe in, and want to support.
  2. Create and cultivate an online persona that reflects that identity. Stay true on your website, in your branding, and on social media.
  3. Build a community of supporters, online and offline. Build relationships with your donors, and engage with those donors regularly and effectively!
  4. Fill the staff with voices and personalities that embody the organization’s mission. (And don’t be afraid to trim the fat if necessary.)
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Be honest, transparent, and open to criticism and feedback—especially the negative stuff.
  6. Respond to conflict quickly, politely, and—most important of all—truthfully. Responding to criticism can be tough, but the backlash of ignoring it will be much worse.

What can nonprofits do to save or maintain their reputation in times of controversy?

The name of the game here is “transparency.” Many for-profit companies struggle to maintain effective lines of communication with their customers, investors, and critics.

For companies like Nestle, it may seem easier to just ignore controversy in the hopes it goes away. Often, this strategy means dealing with backlash later. Nonprofits do not have that option. 

Because so much of a nonprofit’s success depends on its relationships and trust-building with donors and foundations, a nonprofit must always maintain its trustworthiness. And when situations start to head south, the only way to do this is to be open and honest.

Honest, transparent, and responsive—these are the keys to nonprofit reputation management in times of crisis.

Through two long years of investigations, WWP’s reputation as a dependable, trustworthy support system for veterans kept the organization alive. They showed self-accountability through their commitment to a top-down restructure of the whole organization. Most important, however, was WWP’s transparency policy.

When it comes down to it, your donors and supporters are here for a reason.

If someone has pledged money to your cause, it’s not because they like your merchandise. It’s because they believe in your mission.

There may come a time where scandal, organization upheaval, or other controversy puts your nonprofit at risk. A strong reputation and an open, honest transparency policy are the best defenses your organization can have.

Management consultant and brand strategist for small teams. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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