Nation branding—the strategic deployment of national identity for branding purposes—is a well-studied phenomenon typically associated with governments and businesses. Up until now, however, the role of nation branding in the philanthropic sector has been ignored. In this post, Adam Saifer explains how nation branding is already being used in the philanthropic sector and why it deserves more attention from researchers and practitioners.
Over the past three decades, much has been written about how globalization has dramatically reduced the role and importance of nation-states (e.g., Ohmae, 1995). On the surface, the argument is certainly compelling. Think about the material goods in your immediate vicinity: the tea you’re drinking, the phone in your pocket, the shirt you’re wearing—the vast majority were likely produced across complex global networks, the result of businesses scanning the globe in search of lax regulatory environments, and cheap and disciplined labour forces. Likewise, the media we consume, the technologies we rely on, and the ideologies that shape our thinking are no longer territorially bound, flowing across the globe as if nation-state borders were a relic of a distant past.
At the same time, however, this increased global interconnectivity has magnified the importance of “the nation” as a marker of cultural uniqueness and difference (Parker, 1999). Governments and businesses have long been attuned to this contradictory phenomenon, drawing on prominent national stories, tropes, and symbols for branding purposes in pursuit of a variety of goals—a phenomenon popularly known as nation branding.
Advocates of government-led nation branding contend that a strong nation brand encourages tourism, foreign-direct investment, and trade, and can attract skilled workers and competitive candidates in higher education (Aroncyzk, 2009). Proponents of business-led nation branding highlight how businesses can draw on national stories, myths, and symbols to appeal to consumers, whether by playing to local differences and idiosyncrasies in new international markets, or by leveraging their home country’s perceived attributes to their advantage (Amis, 2005).
And yet, while there exists much discourse and debate (and critique!) around nation branding in government and business, the same cannot be said for philanthropy. As a researcher with an interest in how national identity shapes processes and practices in the philanthropic sector, I find the silence on this topic surprising for a number of reasons including…
- …many organizations in the sector are already engaging in philanthropic nation branding, even if they don’t know it.
An organization’s brand is much more than its product’s performance-based properties (i.e., what their products can actually be used to do), as well as its aesthetic components (e.g., a logo or website design). Instead, an organization’s brand should be understood as a psychological construct held in the minds of those who perceive the organization, and the shared meanings and cultural values that individuals attach to the organization (Banet-Weiser, 2012). Branding, on the other hand, is the act of shaping the perception that people have of an organization.
In this way, many foundations and nonprofits in Canada are already engaging in philanthropic nation branding. Consciously or not, they are deploying prominent stories, tropes, and symbols of Canadian identity in their attempt to shape the perception that people have of their organizations.
One such example is the Inspirit Foundation: a national grantmaking foundation focused on addressing ethnic, racial, and religious discrimination through systemic and structural change. As one of the more progressive foundations in Canada, Inspirit is openly critical of many facets of the Canadian nation-state—past and present—highlighting, for example, that reconciliation must take into account, “[Canada’s] destructive legacy of displacement, intergenerational trauma of residential schools and discriminatory legislation” (Inspirit, 2016, p. 3). Nevertheless, Inspirit actively constructs their brand in relation to prominent Canadian stories, tropes, and symbols of national identity, invoking concepts like “diversity,” “tolerance,” “pluralism,” and “inclusion” in their promotional materials and organizational documents, as well as their social media posts. In their current Strategic Plan, for example, the foundation writes,
Canada is regarded as—and strives to be—one of the most socially progressive countries in the world. Like most nations, our founding story is complex and imperfect. However, our national identity is predicated on a promise of compassion and inclusion.
This quotation gives us a small peek into the complexity of philanthropic nation branding in practice. Here, Inspirit is constructing an organizational brand that is inextricably linked to Canada and Canadian-ness, using the language of “our founding story” to connect the organization with the nation. While their brand is certainly critical of Canada, it nonetheless is organized around a Canadian “promise of compassion and inclusion,” as well as Canada’s aspirations to be “one of the most socially progressive countries in the world.”
This brief snippet further highlights what distinguishes philanthropic nation branding from government-led and business-led nation branding: its aspirational character. In other words, these prominent stories, tropes, and symbols of Canadian identity are framed as something to aspire to rather than something that already exists. Both state-led and business-led nation branding, on the other hand, attempt to capitalize on the perception of the nation as already good (or “diverse,” “multicultural,” and “tolerant” in the Canadian context). The aspirational character of philanthropic nation branding presents the philanthropic organization as well-suited to work toward shared values and ideals that the nation has failed to live up to. As a result…
- …more organizations could take advantage of philanthropic nation branding to reach their particular goals.
At this point, we can’t ignore the role of branding in the core activities of organizations within a philanthropic sector that increasingly resembles commercial markets. Most notably, branding can help grantees differentiate themselves in the eyes of foundations and other donors (who, paradoxically, are reimagined as consumers to be marketed toward) in order to secure limited grants and funds. In this regard, philanthropic nation branding can prove uniquely useful to grantees seeking to attract donors to their cause.
Research suggests that donors tend to give to grantees that they perceive to be contributing value to society (Sargeant, West, and Ford, 2004), as well as those they perceive as being similar to them (Coliazzi, Williams, and Kayson, 1984; Sargeant and Woodliffe, 2007). By mobilizing prominent national stories, tropes, and symbols—even in an aspirational or critical manner—grantees are evoking a shared cultural framework and language that directly speaks to these donor priorities. Philanthropic nation branding generates space for experiences and feelings associated with the nation as a shared community (Lury, 2004), and the nation becomes a context where consumers of this brand messaging weave their own stories and come to know themselves as belonging to this shared community.
Foundations can also utilize philanthropic nation branding in similar ways. Framing their work in relation to a set of shared national ideals, values, and aspirations can help foundations connect with grantees, partners, and communities that see themselves as part of a shared community (i.e., the nation) that has failed to realize these national ideals, values, and aspirations. Once relationships are established, grantees and partners will no doubt possess vastly different experiences and understandings of these prominent national stories, tropes, and symbols. As a result, philanthropic nation branding can facilitate difficult, yet generative, conversations about creating a fairer and more just country.
Philanthropic nation branding can also be leveraged by foundations to increase visibility around the issues they prioritize by framing them in relation to stories, tropes, and symbols prominent in the collective national imagination. For example, foundations can draw on nationally embedded stories of Canadian-ness like “pluralism” or “inclusion” to introduce the Canadian public to pressing socio-material injustices like racialized poverty or patriarchal workplace norms, in effect challenging Canadians to do the work required to feel secure in their national identity.
Despite the opportunities that philanthropic nation branding presents, practitioners and scholars must also proceed with caution as…
- …philanthropic nation branding can be extremely harmful to the work of organizations in the sector.
Research on state-led and business-led nation branding is not always celebratory. In fact, there are entire academic fields dedicated to critically examining the social, political, and cultural repercussions of nation branding including the ways in which it reinforces hypermasculine and militarized forms of citizenship (Weedon, 2012), or rebrands the nation-state as a global defender of human rights, while deflecting attention away from its actual record on the issues in question (Rankin, 2012).
Philanthropic nation branding is by no means immune to these concerns.
In a recent post for PhiLab, I cited the example of Roots Canada’s Be Nice philanthropic campaign as an example of how national identity is mobilized in the philanthropic sector. The campaign began with a video narrated by Canadian actor Kim Cattrall titled “Celebrating 150 Years of Being Nice.” The video combined images of well-known figures and events in Canadian history with Cattrall’s narration about the multiple meanings of “being nice” (e.g., “The real nice. The kind of nice that takes guts. The courageous nice. The selfless nice. And the disruptive nice”), before concluding with a toast: “Canada: here’s to another 150 years of being nice.”
Today, you can’t find “Celebrating 150 Years of Being Nice” anywhere on the internet. This digital scrubbing is likely in response to the significant Indigenous-led pushback against Canada 150. As Mi’kmaq legal scholar Pamela Palmater (2017) explains, “every firework, hot dog and piece of birthday cake in Canada’s 150th celebration will be paid for by the genocide of Indigenous peoples and cultures.” Roots’ Be Nice philanthropic campaign sanitizes additional histories of Canadian nation-building by erasing or reframing the oppression and exploitation of non-Indigenous racialized groups in/by Canada as well. For example, the campaign offers images of a recent “Refugees Welcome » sign but says nothing of the 15,000 Chinese labourers imported during the 1880s to build the Canada Pacific Railway, the establishment of the Chinese Head Tax, nor the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Likewise, the video includes a short clip of Romeo Dallaire, former Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, but says nothing of the imperial violence of the Somalia Affair in 1993, Canada’s role in the 2004 coup d’état in Haiti, nor Canada’s support of the war in Afghanistan.
Like state-led and business-led nation branding, philanthropic nation branding can function as an ideological tool that obscures ongoing projects of settler-colonialism, as well as the realities of institutional racism, and state-sponsored ecological destruction. However, philanthropic nation branding can also create room for critique of the nation-state insofar as the brand is organized around national goals and aspirations that philanthropy can, in theory, help realize. A foundation or nonprofit branded around aspiring to create a more tolerant or peaceful Canada, for example, requires an acknowledgement that Canada has failed to live up to its purported identity as a tolerant and peacekeeping nation.
Despite these possibilities, limits, and tensions, philanthropic nation branding remains an underexplored phenomenon by practitioners and researchers. At the same time, philanthropic nation branding signals that amidst increasing global interconnectedness, place—or, in this case, the nation—still matters. The role and importance of nation and place hasn’t diminished; rather, it has merely reinvented itself.
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