826NYC is a nonprofit organization that opens up a world of possibilities for students through the power of creative writing. We partnered with 826NYC and Executive Director Joshua Mandelbaum to rebrand the organization, and give focus to its values, purpose, and mission. Joshua’s background includes more than 16 years in the nonprofit world, with an emphasis on the arts.
We recently sat down with Joshua to talk about the new brand identity and how branding has impacted their business and given them a compass for growth.
Goals: What were the goals for the project? What did you set out to accomplish?
When I started, the organization was in bad shape. We had been around for 15 years, and we did not have a true brand identity. We wanted to solidify how the brand spoke about itself, so that’s what we set out to do. In the end, we succeeded beyond our wildest imagination because CBX created a process that helped us learn about ourselves. In those conversations, we got to the heart of our work. We thought of ourselves as a place for students at a creative age, and as a helpful and positive presence for marginalized communities. But the way we were communicating didn’t reflect that shared belief. The process of creating the brand book helped us unpack the nature of our program and prioritize work differently.
Program detail: Help us understand the 826NYC school programs either during or after school.
The program we are currently filling up is our Young Writers Publish program, where we work with an educator on a piece of curriculum-aligned content, and we publish it. Publishing can be broad, whether it be a school newspaper, a podcast, a book, or part of a news program. We are experts in helping students publish works they are proud of, and tying creative writing into school curricula to make writing more engaging for students.
Challenges: What are some of your biggest challenges as a brand?
The conversation that brought us to CBX was about our many pipelines. We have a donor pipeline, a volunteer pipeline, a student recruitment pipeline, and a school recruitment pipeline. We didn’t know how to speak to everyone with consistent messaging. A big challenge for us was unifying messaging and showing how we have effective tools and resources for each stakeholder.
Making the vision actionable: How did the branding work help you crystallize the organization’s vision and make it actionable?
In creating messaging, we understood the transformational nature of our programs. It was more than just language to us; it was a story that rang true within our team. Creating the messaging gave us guideposts for how to move our programs forward. For example, we’ve made significant changes in the way we run after-school programs, tutoring, and writing programs. When COVID started, students said they were having trouble doing their homework, so we started tutoring and writing assistance right after school. We use basic writing, reading aloud, and guided reading to bolster their skills during a difficult time. Eventually, we want to see our values reflected in each of our centers. It was difficult when we couldn’t use our physical spaces. But when we did go back, we realized how much about our brand had changed. The visuals and language didn’t reflect who we were anymore, and it was an eye-opening moment. We’re excited to integrate the new branding into the spaces. In a saturated nonprofit market, we can position ourselves differently to large community organization partners, to families, and to the Department of Education. We are able to clearly speak about our programs and how they serve students.
External-purpose articulation: How have you been using some of the CBX-designed branding and the notion of “creativity at its core” to impact your audiences?
For board members past and present, it’s our rallying cry. They understand the impact and want to be involved in giving students a great experience. It’s what drives board members and volunteers to help students cultivate their own ideas, so they can tell any story they want to tell. The students come up with their own characters, and our job is to help them craft a story. We teach them about narrative structure, components of a good story, character development, and narrative arc. But, ultimately, we give students a safe environment in which to share ideas and be creative. Then we’ll help them make the story the best it can be.
Growth/future opportunities: How has the vision of 826NYC inspired you to grow and create new opportunities in the future?
826 is part of a larger network. When I started, we were following a specific model, but every chapter has since adopted its own way of doing things based on the environment they operate in. The brand book helped us understand our trajectory using our current resources. We weren’t going to attract funding by adding staff or building more centers, so we began exploring how we would grow through partnerships with organizations that have access to funding, like community organizations and the Department of Education. Now that we understand our value proposition, we can reach those organizations in a new way.
How do you articulate that North Star to outside people?
I talk about how we have a personal creative writing program that builds lifelong skills, along with social and emotional outcomes that prepare students for their future. Through our publishing process, we also transform students into writers—which enables them to perceive themselves as someone with an important perspective that needs to be shared with the world. We help them learn, but we also show them that they are their own source of creative expression, and that’s our driving force.