Designing For Non-Profits

A significant percentage of my clients are non-profit enterprises. I have had many opportunities to design campaign materials, annual reports, and graphic assets for non-profit organizations. In working with executive and development directors, I’ve found that there is common ground between organizations and for-profit businesses when it comes to design, but that the differences are remarkable.

Non-Profits have special needs.

Both types of enterprises require design solutions to position, differentiate, communicate and market. Both need excellent design. Both need to make money. Both require efficient and effective organizational structures. But non-profits have concerns that differ significantly from those of for-profit businesses:

The “product” is often not pretty. Causes such as diseases, human trafficking, at-risk youth, abuse, homelessness, and disabilities are hardly glamorous. Cause-related non-profits aim to benefit those who have been overlooked, sidelined, or devalued, not to sell a product or service.

They ask for support rather than sales. A primary goal of a non-profit is to build a consistently loyal donor base, adding new donors while retaining the existing ones. Because of government agencies pulling back and cutting budgets, many organizations are dealing with a significant reduction in funding and must seek other sources in order to continue providing services: businesses, grants, and individuals.

The rewards are intangible. Donors and sponsors are asked to open their wallets, not to purchase tangible goods and consumables, but for reasons that are intangible … esoteric, magnanimous, altruistic, , emotional, spiritual, non-material benefits.. The audience gets no direct benefit save for expressions of appreciation and recognition on a donor list.

Budgets for design are low or non-existent.  On the one hand, organizations opt for cheesy clip art and cheap logo design. On the other hand, they’ll apply for grants in order to fund needed design work. One client I worked with obtained a grant just to pay for my creative services.

Design needs to appeal and function well.

Like for-profit businesses, non-profits require excellence in design in order to reach people and compel them to respond. Graphic design solutions, including logos, trademarks, print collateral, direct mail, websites and social media applications need to accomplish the following:

    • Increase awareness. When people don’t know there’s a need, they won’t give to support it. Awareness is not simply knowing that there’s a need, but includes a rationale for why the need should be satisfied, and make it easy for the prospective donor to support the cause.  Awareness needs to be increase in the general population, not only within the affected group.
    • Differentiate within the category. Multiple organizations compete for funds in the same category and donor base. For example, there are hundreds of organizations that deal with autism. How does one of them rise above the rest? There can be no cookie-cutter or template-based approaches to design solutions.
    • Appeal to donors and volunteers – two separate but often intertwined groups. Most non-profits are supported by volunteers in operational and outreach efforts, but money is still needed to develop intelligent visual communications and cover other expenses.
    • Walk a fine line. For a non-profit, image is everything. A design must not give the appearance that too much money was spent on it, but yet must be elegant enough to appear worthy of a donor opening up his wallet. That requires insight and a particular attention to detail on the part of the designer in developing solutions.
    • Rise above prevailing trends. The Ice Bucket challenge brought ALS into the spotlight all over social media, but then the trend ran its course as people sought the next big cause to pay attention to. Given the rise and fall of social media trends, organizations may experience an sudden and short-lived increase in awareness and donations. But trends aren’t sustainable. The need is to build and maintain awareness for the cause over the long term.
    • Build trust among donors and the general population. Image matters. There is a perception that most of the money donated to an organization goes to administrative and other uses rather than being applied for the direct benefit of those the organization was established to help.   Donors want to know how their contributions will be disbursed. Web sites such as Charity Navigator help explain (or expose) the percentage of donations that actually get to the intended recipients, after administrative and marketing costs.

Design solutions are an investment in success.

Many designers work with non-profits on an in-kind, reduced fee, or pro bono basis. Not every designer works this way. As a business owner, I can’t design for free for every cause and keep my business alive. It is important that non-profits realize the value they receive in the form of design services, and seek grants or other funding to be able to compensate designers for their work. Sappi Paper’s Ideas That Matter awards grants to designers who work with cause-based organizations. AIGA’s Design for Good matches designers and causes. The choice to work with a non-profit on a fee or no-fee basis, is up to the individual designer.

Non-profits and the designers who work with them both need to be strategic and practical in developing and implementing effective visual communications. This in itself is a creative problem that requires its own solution. The wrong design for a targeted audience will not increase good will or awareness. Non-profits should consider the strategies recommended by the designer, and the designer should carefully consider the values and mission of the organization in his recommendations.

…the designer needs to be tactful, listen, avoid becoming involved in the politics of the organization, and keep everyone focused on the goals of the project so that agreement can be reached.

Non-profits need to trust new ideas.

In order to reach new audiences, new ideas must be explored. I was approached by a non-profit that was well-known and well-supported within the faith community, but virtually unknown outside of it. Because its clients were high-risk individuals in the community at large, the board of directors wanted to expand the donor base into the general population. They contacted me about a rebranding program. As I sat with the executives to discuss strategies, I discovered they were reticent to change their brand assets and remained stuck on using symbols and words specific to the faith-based donors. They were fearful of losing their identity and standing among current supporters. This is understandable, but design thinking (what designers do) will result in solutions that will effectively address both concerns, and enable an organization to achieve its goals.

The decision-maker at an organization is usually a board of directors. Each director has an opinion about what is right for the organization. Designing by committee is not easy; the designer needs to be tactful, listen, avoid becoming involved in the politics of the organization, and keep everyone focused on the goals of the project so that agreement can be reached.

[Tweet “Some of the best design ever has been created for non-profits. The opposite is also true. bit.ly/1emsbUP “]

Some of the best design work ever has been created for non-profits. The opposite is also true: non-profits put out some of the worst graphics ever. If a designer chooses to work with an organization, she should bring her best work and relational skills to the table, whether she is compensated for the work or not. By the way, even when the creative work is entirely in-kind, the designer should enter into a contracted relationship with the organization and have a tight agreement outlining the scope of work, the value-for-value exchange, development schedule, expenses, rights transferred, etc.

By keeping these things in mind, working with non-profits can be one of the most satisfying aspects of a designer’s professional experience.


Alvalyn Lundgren is an award-winning graphic designer, illustrator and owner of Alvalyn Creative, an independent design studio near Thousand Oaks, California. Contact her for your visual branding, graphic and web design needs. Join her on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and subscribe to her free monthly newsletter.

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