Designing for nonprofits

Designing for Nonprofits: Our Commentary + Experience

This blog was co-written by Associate Creative Director, Ida Persson, and SVP of Brand + Strategy, Amy Small.

Within Media Cause’s Creative, Brand, and Design team, one of our favorite things to do— besides creating incredible work for our clients—is sharing inspirational and educational resources with each other: articles, POVs, webinars, classes, books, case studies, blogs, tutorials, cheese. (Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.)

Looking outside our typical field of vision for new ideas is a natural part of our process, as it is for most creative folks. We develop our skills by seeking, absorbing, questioning, adapting, and experimenting, oftentimes bringing diverse influences together to create something that’s unique for our clients’ needs, but with connections to other relevant spaces. While much of the branding and design inspiration we run across is either from consumer brands or individual artists, it all provides us with the opportunity to discover new principles, practices, and approaches that we can incorporate into our nuanced nonprofit world. Every once in a while though, we stumble across a resource or reference from inside our very own wheelhouse. 

This recent article from AIGA, “Small Budgets, Tight Deadlines, Important Work:

Lessons all designers can learn from working with nonprofits,” was one of those instances. In a strange way, reading this article was a validating experience for many of us. Hearing how other designers approach some of the same creative challenges we face every day, and getting a peek into their thought processes, felt like a welcome dose of camaraderie. Of course, everyone’s experiences and takeaways are going to be different, depending on context, circumstance, style, and perspective. So while there was a lot we were nodding our heads along to in this article, there were also some places where we wanted to add thoughts of our own. 

Community is key: working with, not for

The article highlighted the importance of getting to know the client’s impacted community before creating the brand identity. This is key to building relevant brands. As we think about creative work, we should also consider how we can move from the idea of “creating for” to “creating with” communities. The people who are part of a specific community are the experts in that field, and they should be part of the creative process, not just used to “run ideas by,” or as focus groups when we conduct user-testing. As we look to make an impact, how can we invite community members to create with us from the start? The idea of including stakeholders in the process is often referred to as co-designing, or participatory design. It is a truly collaborative effort, and rather than us being design or marketing experts coming to “help” everyone, we become co-collaborators of developing solutions together. 

Creative-problem solving on a small budget

While big-picture concepting, co-collaborating, prototyping, and testing may be part of many traditional creative and design processes, we recognize that they oftentimes require more time, or money, than many organizations have at their disposal. Like the title of the AIGA article states, small budgets are a big challenge for many nonprofits. But instead of seeing this as a problem, how can we turn it into an advantage? 

At Media Cause, we serve clients with a wide range of budgets, internal team sizes, and digital capabilities. Throughout the years, we’ve learned how to make things happen even with limited resources—adjusting our thinking, and our approaches, based on each client’s current reality. Finding solutions to big challenges is at the core of our mission-driven work, and as we look to create impact on a budget, we’re not afraid to step out of our comfort zone and learn new tools or look for scrappy ways to get things done. 

Last year’s pandemic only amplified the importance of being able to find non-traditional approaches to problem solving. For example, when the world shut down, we had to think of new ways to help our clients raise funds when in-person events were no longer available. Because many nonprofits rely on galas for the bulk of their annual fundraising (networking! fancy food! silent auctions! corporate sponsorships!), we had to quickly pivot and learn new technologies and platforms to move their galas and events virtual. But the technical aspects were only one part of the challenge. How could we create fully-remote fundraising events that people would WANT to attend at home? What would the structure be like? What about content? How could we encourage supporters to stay as engaged eating popcorn on their couches as they would in a banquet hall sipping cocktails? These specific challenges were not visual design, but rather experience design, which is often one of the biggest determining factors in an effort’s success. And experience design takes just as much “getting scrappy” when traditional methods are no longer an option. Based on our client’s fundraising goals, their audiences, their budgets, their timing, and their willingness to try some new approaches along with us, we were able to design virtual events that raised just as much money, if not more, than previous years’ in-person initiatives. 

Creative problem solving not only helps clients, but also helps members of our team, and our agency as a whole, expand our capabilities. AND, it’s a great reminder that nonprofit work isn’t solely about expectations or perfection, but about focusing on the things that matter most—creating impact for our clients and their communities. 

Ethical storytelling: It is not just about telling the right stories, but also telling the stories the right way. 

In the AIGA article, Michael Yuasa, founding designer at Antarctic, mentions how “Putting the donor first plays out in all visual communication.” And yes, the donor-as-hero story format is a tried-and-true fundraising strategy that has helped countless organizations raise critical funds for the missions. But as we look to put donors first, and paint them as the heroes, we must also make sure that the stories we’re telling about the communities they’re helping aren’t feeding into stereotypes or tokenism in an unethical way. 

How many times have you seen an ad for a humanitarian aid nonprofit showing a malnourished child suffering? While this image might tug at donors’ heart strings and entice them to help that child, are they helping out of empathy, or sympathy? Is it compassion, or pity? In the larger context, these kinds of portrayals can have the unintended consequence of amplifying the narrative of white saviorism

As we look to help nonprofits reach donors and raise funds through storytelling, we must make sure we tell stories in an ethical way by carefully considering the broader human implications of what words we use and what images we show—beyond how they impact our fundraising goals. 

Accessibility: Start small and focusing on the benefit

The article highlights the importance of making sure visual designs are accessible, and how establishing ADA compliance should play a significant role in all marketing communications. And while accessibility is important for any brand, it’s even more important for nonprofits, as the heart of their work isn’t to sell—it’s to serve. 

According to the CDC, 1 in 4 Americans live with some kind of disability. By designing with accessibility in mind, not only can we help nonprofits be more responsible in their communications, but we can also help them reach 25 percent more people who can provide support, and funding, to create more impact for their missions. 

This all sounds great, in theory. But if accessibility isn’t something you’re familiar with, making accommodations for accessibility may feel like too big of a challenge to tackle when you’re limited in time and money, as most nonprofits are. However, creating accessible work does not have to be hard, or expensive. You can start small by learning some of the basic rules, and with more practice implementing them, they’ll become part of your natural creative process, rather than an add-on that’s considered at the end. For example, using emojis in social posts may add personality and emotion, but their meta-descriptions can confuse the message of the post, or cause challenges for screen-readers that are used by individuals with vision impairments. These kinds of considerations may seem small, but they can make a huge difference for your viewers and supporters.

Designing for nonprofits comes with its own unique set of challenges, but at the heart of it all is a common goal of creating a better future for everyone. This focus on constant improvement—whether through collaboration, simplification, awareness, or accessibility—is part of how we try to help our clients move their missions forward. Design can’t solve everything, nor should it be expected to. But when we learn from challenges and develop new solutions alongside our clients, regardless of budget or obstacles, we’re able to accomplish some pretty amazing things together.