08 November 2006
DK Holland
DK Holland

America is crass commercialism: that's the message that is reflected on the streets and in the media these days. But what's in our soul? I think wistfully of bygone years when the standard for nonprofit design was higher: I think of the brilliantly clever and totally graphic nonprofit ad campaigns of the Ad Council of a few decades ago. 'A mind is a terrible thing to waste' and 'This is your mind on drugs' come immediately to mind. And I conjure up the innumerable and much inspiring nonprofit identities that revered designers Chermayeff and Geismar crafted in years past. These were forms of expression that made you proud to be an American designer - made you want to step up to the plate and volunteer your talent for a cause.

The heroics of the World Trade Center tragedy reflect the true soulfulness of America. We hear and see these stories and we are, to a person, proud again. In the New World that has been forming ever since September 11th, we need to balance the protectiveness we feel for our country with a renewed commitment to what it is we're protecting: that means not just paying for goods and services to goose the economy but paying greater attention to the nonprofit sector. Culture, social services, the environment and education are all areas that rely on the work of nonprofits. And nonprofits rely on the good work of civic-minded citizens. Prior to September 11th nonprofit organizations benefited from the help of graphic designers, but now they desperately need it. These days, most nonprofit graphic identities and promotions have the appeal of a wet dishrag.

Think for a minute: What are the most arresting graphic images you've seen in the past six months? How many are from the nonprofit world? Or I should say, are any from the nonprofit world?

Nonprofiteers are motivated by love not money, as reflected in the name. And at no time has the classification nonprofit been more descriptive than post 9/11. Many, if not most, nonprofits have taken a hit or two: either by a decline in gifts, a reneging of donations promised, or layoffs or projects put on hold or severe attendance drop offs or all of the above. Some have gone under, some are holding on by a prayer.
A bit of this may be healthy attrition and a much-needed weeding out of non-essentials, granted, but the tragedy and our weakened economy have put many organizations in peril that we would all agree are important to our society. And part of the problem is certainly that nonprofits lack cohesive design strategies, including compelling graphic identities and promotion programs.

A beacon for the nonprofit harbor
This is where you come in. This New World needs designers to buttress the best of the nonprofit organizations. This is no small task. This New World has been over-stimulated, become jaded by the glitter and glamour of the for-profit world. One good result - the general public has become quite discerning and savvy when it comes to good design.
The talent to make concepts tangible and powerful combined with the overwhelming desire to do so for the good of the public can provide great gratification to the designer, when properly harnessed: "Live up the light thou hast, and more will be granted to thee."1

But it all comes down to money in some way, the nonprofit thinks it can't afford the work of professional designers and designers think it's very risky to work for free or little money if they aren't going to be able to design a wonderful piece.
Susan Erdey is the Communications Director of The Foundation Center in New York; a nonprofit clearinghouse, that provides information about 243,000 grants over $10,000 awarded by nearly 60,000 foundations. Erdey, who has worked with designers, suggests that designers need to look at their relationships with nonprofits differently from those of the for-profit world. "You have to understand the culture of the nonprofit world. These are people who are busy running programs and providing services who have not necessarily had the luxury of time to think outside the box, design-wise. Yet any project should be developed in collaboration. Your patience is essential and a bit of probing can spur creative energy from the nonprofit. After all, they may well have the key idea, not the designer. Designers should be open to that."

Too often designers take over when they see a void of knowledge and skill instead of offering a helping hand to fill the void or, if not, help create a bridge so that the nonprofit can be an active participant in the design process.
Last year Gene Case founded Avenging Angels, a New York advertising agency dedicated to working with progressive advocacy groups. Case says, Our idea, which I think is quite original, is to brand the left. Case, one of the founding partners of the $500,000,000 Fifth Avenue agency Jordan McGrath Case & Partners, plans to run his new venture by providing top professional work on a cost-plus basis. Avenging Angels's clients include Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities (The Priorities Campaign), Peace Action, The Nation and 20/20 Vision. He has renovated a floor in a rundown building on a side street (seen as a step down, in New York real estate terms, from an avenue address) to house Avenging Angels which he says is just the perfect image. He is willing to personally sacrifice fees to get the work into print and he sometimes executes his idea on his own in order to win the client over to his side. But Case, who is a large, charismatic man, large in passion and impact, seems a bit exasperated. "Nonprofits have enormous respect for advertising in the private sector." He says, "They rule it out as a route to take because they 'don't have the money.' Well, they have to try harder. The money is out there. There's more money on the left than on the right. I am willing to work for cheap.
I am not willing to pay the printer. They have to do that."
You do the math

Nonprofits, oft thought of as the poor cousins of big business, are badly informed about the value of good design and branding (the brainchild of big business) precisely because they feel they can t afford it. Yet this is easily rectified. Erdey suggests a simple, pragmatic exercise, Figure out how much time it takes [the nonprofit communications director] to struggle to produce the newsletter, for instance,
and then figure out the salary that is expended in the process. I ve seen people do this and they realize it s often less expensive to outsource it to a designer and, of course, the results are far superior. This exercise can be expanded to include branding and other design tools on a larger scale.
Once the nonprofit and designer are right thinking, they can team up to develop a grant proposal to fund the materials needed by the group. While many foundations may be as blind to the value of design as some nonprofits, foundations that have corporate ties may respond to a well-crafted pro-posal that covers design. SAPPI Limited, an international paper company based in South Africa, is headed by Eugene van As. He has had a long-time interest in assisting the nonprofit world of his continent and three years ago decided to spread this support to a global level through the program, Ideas that Matter. Offering a total of $1,000,000 worldwide, $400,000 is earmarked for North America, for designers who are working with nonprofits. The grants pay for the production costs (not design fees) of worthy programs. Entries have increased by 50% each year. Submissions must be in by May when grants from $5,000 $50,000 are considered.

Dispelling the myths
Certainly not all good is done by nonprofits and not all nonprofits are good. And while many of the good people who work in this sector do so at reduced salaries - that s obvious - it s not as well-known that these people are also often better educated, more savvy than those in the for-profit sector. Many have left higher paying jobs in the for-profit world in favor of doing good for the world and many graduated from top schools deciding to dedicate themselves to social causes. Erdey says, In 1987, when I was a senior at Wells College, I saw many of my classmates preparing to go into investment banking and other parts of the business sector. I could see that the nonprofit area desperately needed good communications and that was what I wanted to help provide.
Similarly, Bethany Chaney, the Development Director of the Bowery Residents Committee in New York, never even considered working in the for-profit world. She says that she volunteered in college, notably for Amnesty International, I just knew my passion would be working for a social cause, specifically in educating the public about the cause.

I knew that would be a diYcult assignment so I went on to business school to get my MBA to counteract that problem. That s where I learned about marketing, strategic planning and finance. Business school prepared me to become a nonprofit fundraiser. Chaney understands the power of good design. For organizations that have the funding, it pays to budget for design. But that s where nonprofits have a hard time. What s the perception going to be? If it looks too nice, are donors going to think their money was misspent? However, donors want to see you are providing the organization with well-designed materials. Everything has to add value in Chaney s way of thinking. She adds, Some designers are not asking the right questions about audience perception and the goal of the piece.

Beauty is a powerful messenger
Many of the messages of nonprofits are painful to hear: our abused animals, our mistreated environment, our underprivileged children. We are surrounded by bad news. Need we hear more? Good design can disarm the audience and make them want to listen: Beauty is a powerful messenger. I judged a show in Toronto a few years ago and there were several spreads submitted for the photography category that caught my eye. Black-and-white photographs in a full-bleed tabloid format of a well-known fashion model walking through a severely impoverished area of Haiti, among hollow-looking men with gruesome bleeding wounds; through a morgue filled with piles of emaciated black bodies. She had agreed to go because then the cameras would follow. And when I put my thumb over her face it was clear: the picture, which had been mesmerizing to me, held no attraction without her. Princess Diana did the same for landmines. Designers can do the same for nonprofits that tackle the tough issues. Make a brochure so attractive that the audience gives it their time and consideration freely even though the subject may be otherwise inherently repulsive.

Of course, cultural nonprofits do not share this challenge. Beauty is their stock in trade. Worldstudio, in New York s SoHo, is headed by David Sterling and Mark Randall. They are a nonprofit (Worldstudio Foundation) and they work for nonprofits, mostly cultural groups. Sterling says, Back in the days when I ran Doublespace with Jane Kosstrin, the Brooklyn Academy of Music hired us to create a poster for a program for a new artist, dancer Pina Bausch. They not only gave us total creative freedom but they encouraged us to be experimental, radical. We created a ridiculously long piece. It had a lot of emotion and movement in it - something a regular client would never go for. It was a real growth experience. Well, the performances sold out and the poster has since won many awards. I have pursued cultural nonprofits ever since. I would say that meeting people in this area is always satisfying. The experience is enriching and, of course, the content with which we design is the reward.

Pure content
Surrounded by decay, a tiny storefront still sports a shingle, Lolita Bras, which flaps idly in the breeze. This is now the home of the nonprofit organization, Make A Better Place, truly a wild flower flourishing in a trash bin, a sign of delightful verve for this otherwise derelict lower East Side Manhattan community.

Elana Gutmann and Daniele Robbiani co-founded MABP as To Make the World a Better Place eight years ago. They changed the name recently because, as Elana points out, "It was unwieldy." Funded by many sources, but most notably Nikon, this nonprofit dedicates itself to empowering kids to see their world, their future - and in the seeing, to communicate their vision of what's possible and what they can do to get to a positive place in their world. In doing this, MABP encourages kids to help build their communities. Many of these kids come from underprivileged communities and/or families. In some programs, each kid is provided a camera, film, processing and a mentor so that they have all the tools and guidance they need to experience this process in the best way. MABP has put together projects with the Board of Education and with other groups, such as The Door, that also works with kids at risk. Steve Liska, of Liska + Associates in Chicago, has designed most of the graphic materials - brochures, catalogs of the kids' photographs and writings, and the logo for MABP for the past eight years. Gutmann says, "To work with a designer is to create a partnership. We treat Steve with respect and he treats us like a real client, yet his work is 100% pro bono. He doesn't just squeeze us in, he gives us the time and care we need. It gives us all much more a sense of accomplishment and pleasure to work this way. He s an angel, our angel." Nonprofits need angels, especially after September 11th. Gutmann observes, "Everyone wants to do good now after the tragedy but many of these actions may become merely hollow symbolic gestures if they lack depth of thinking."

Liska, who has design oYces in Chicago and New York says, What Elana and Daniele are doing is giving kids that have trouble in their lives a voice. The impact of the first design we produced for MABP was immediate. That made, and continues to make, MABP one of the most rewarding projects we have. All the designers here want to work on their projects: value energizes. Of course, we re always trying to juggle paying work with non-paying work but when you want to do it, you make it happen. You fit it in and you do a professional job. Liska pauses then adds, All the designers I know want to do good. Everyone takes on what they can handle. But why does it have to be so hard? You don t argue with your plumber about how to fix your faucet. Unfortunately, design offers a lot of opportunity for discretion and taste decisions that clients want to jump in and make. Nonprofits have to treat us as professionals and to trust our judgments as such. The dilemma of delays, changes, revisions in the nonprofit world is not that they happen but that they can not pay for them. This sets up a conundrum for the designer. They must give the nonprofit strict procedural guidelines to follow or risk entering a time sink - a black hole of fee-lessness and potential lack of success for the final piece due to strategy-lessness.

Designer Fo Wilson says, When I created the identity/marketing project for the cooperative photo agency, Impact Visuals, even though it was pro bono, I insisted we have a formal contract, just like I would with any other client. It really helped to clarify for the client what they could expect and what was expected of them. This helped us maintain a certain integrity to the relationship even though there wasn t a fee. Beside helping to increase their sales by 40%, it gave my firm recognition and an entr into a category of work we were not known for.

Sustainability is a big buzzword in the nonprofit world. Both Chaney and Erdey agree that corporate funders are more apt to fund design because they may see the develop-
ment of branding as increasing the longevity of the organization. However, Erdey wonders if institutional foundations would consider design to be a nonessential component to a grant proposal, being typically more interested in the programming than the development of outreach materials of the organization. This information provides clues about how to approach funding - i.e., to tie the design to the programming, to be persuasive about how the materials will help ensure the program's success. Some of the larger nonprofits have very deep pockets and pro bono work is unnecessary. The designer can establish a sliding scale based on yearly revenues, that can help determine charges using an objective measure.

As with any relationship, trust must develop in order to run smoothly. And it's important to assess who you are dealing with from the onset in order to know that trust can be developed. Nonprofits can be researched through state agencies, for instance, to verify their status and solvency. While nonprofits have a reputation for abuse and flakiness, Sterling says, "I've never had a bad experience." Gutmann's caution to designers to treat nonprofits as clients is a clue. The tendency for nonprofits/designer relationships to become malformed through a lack of adherence to professional standards is often a result of sloppiness on both sides.

Branding the nonprofit world
Branding is the ultimate elephant described by nine blind men. And branding in the nonprofit world has its own elephant. Fenton Communications in Washington, DC, is one of the leading authorities on public relations for non-profits. They claim that branding is associating a cause or goal with an organization or person and imbedding that combined image into the public s brain. Subcategories include: organizational branding (Greenpeace, for example); issue branding (such as the breast cancer campaign) and behavior/ lifestyle branding (e.g., the campaign to steer kids away from smoking).
But in order to sway an audience, either those running the nonprofit must be the audience or the nonprofit must respect the fact that they are not the audience. That s the big snag. Nonprofits can become very wrapped up in their own view of things, oblivious to their audience s needs. Vikki Spruill of the nonprofit SeaWeb says, Nonprofits don t listen to the audience and they don t pay attention to how the audience perceives the problem. If anything, they are condescending about what the audience doesn t know.

Robyn Brentano, the Director of Development of New York Association of New Americans (NYANA), says, "Our programs and services were changing. The refugee population in New York that we historically served was declining and we decided to expand our mission to serve all immigrants." When the staff of NYANA recognized the need for a new marketing campaign, they hired The Brand Consultancy in Washington, DC. Brentano says, "Many people have a built-in response to the business model. They have an adverse reaction to commodifying the nonprofit world." Yet that is exactly what they had to do. They used the tools of branding to reposition their organization and are now in the process of implementing the plan. They have hired a design firm to develop the first components. It s unclear whether there was a design advocate included in the planning process (which, of course, would be more typical than not). Brentano asks with curiosity, If there was no brochure or logo to design at that point, why would we bring in a designer, especially since we were far away from choosing a designer?"

Since the ultimate expression of the brand will largely be graphic, it's important to consider the background and information the designer(s) will need. IBM kept designer Paul Rand quite busy consulting on their billion-dollar brand. For decades, they would not have made a move without him. Wilson, who has an MBA on top of her design degree says, "Design has to be woven into the strategy or it's much harder to understand the message of the organization. It can t be tacked on at the end or it will always seem like an afterthought." When Landor Design evolved the FedEx brand identity, they did so brilliantly: design was clearly top of mind.

Search for the right cause
How do you determine which nonprofit to approach about doing pro bono or reduced-fee work? This very question can stymie a designer into non action. But if you're clear what you need to get out of a relationship coupled with what you can give, you can narrow down your search.

1. What causes are you willing to support with your talent? What's your passion?
2. List, by priority, the skills, knowledge, the value you can give, e.g., strategic planning, graphic design, branding, writing, editing, photography, illustration.
3. Define/weigh the value of what you can get out of this, e.g., satisfaction in helping a good cause, introduction to a new area of work, design freedom, portfolio piece, interesting business/social contacts.
4. Determine the environment you want to be active in. Intimate: community-based, less risk adverse, less funding, easier to maneuver within; Large: bigger budgets, more visibility, more bureaucracy.

I asked at the beginning of this article what memorable graphic images came to your mind. A Gap commercial? The homepage of The Maira Kalman/Rick Meyerowitz New Yorker cover - New Yorkistan? Or the I love New York More Than Ever poster by Milton Glaser? Chances are you re more enamoured of the design of the for-profit world but if your heart is with those who are working to effect social change or nurture culture, consider what you can do to help. And, in the doing, how you can help yourself. Waste not a moment.

1 Quote from Quaker Caroline Fox, 1841, at the age of 21.
2 The inscription on the back of M&Co watches by deceased social agitator and design hero Tibor Kalman.

About this article
This article first appeared in the March/April 2002 issue of Communication Arts magazine. Copyright 2002 Coyne & Blanchard Inc.

Editor's note:
Many of the finest Design Issues essays are available in the book of the same name which has been compiled by DK Holland, the editor of this column, and co-published by Communication Arts and Allworth Press. To purchase the book, visit