The Concrete Value of Design for Non-profits

The power of design to tell your organization’s story

Kelsey Gilbert-Kreiling, Presence Agency
 

When starting a non-profit or revitalizing an existing organization, it’s easy to push design to the backburner. Especially when spearheading a mission-driven project, you’re likely to perceive anything that takes time or funds away from your core values and priorities as a detriment—but the truth is, design provides deep and tangible value to charitable organizations of any kind, by telling their story, conveying legitimacy, and creating a foundation for clear communication. 

01 Presence Agency came to the rescue with a new site for the Yemen Peace Project when theirs was hacked during the Muslim ban in 2016

01 Presence Agency came to the rescue with a new site for the Yemen Peace Project when theirs was hacked during the Muslim ban in 2016

 

Design tells your organization’s story 

Most of us don’t see our ideas in black and white, written on a page in our mind’s eye. We have a natural inclination toward design because it provides an outward, visual expression of the way we see the world in our most active moments of imagination. Organizational vision is no different—when founders begin to tell their story, what I imagine they see in their head is the impact they’ll have, the community they’ll serve, what type of work they’ll do, and the people they’ll collaborate with along the way. Those intangibles are hard to convey in text alone—this is where visual branding enters the equation. 

 

“Each design decision that’s made for your non-profit is one more detail in your story. “

 

In an increasingly crowded field of worthy organizations, that story is more important than ever. Think of it this way: at fundraising events, you stand up and make your case to donors. Telling your story personally (and verbally) to connect with an audience is a crucial part of raising money, but how do you do that when you’re not physically in the room? How does the feeling of your story get conveyed? How does the emotion of your mission get shared? In print and online, the look and feel of your organization is what tells your story for you. Is it telling the right one? Do you like what it’s saying about your organization? 

When nonprofits think of design as a way to tell that same story in print and in digital mediums, it helps them understand how vital it is that the look and feel of their organization does the storytelling for them. 

Design conveys legitimacy 

Functionally, creating a non-profit is no different than starting any small business. Though operations may vary from those of for-profit businesses, the need for design is just as important, especially in an organization’s early stages. Design signals to supporters that you’ve thoughtfully developed your new venture and you’re committed to its vision beyond “new idea” excitement. Design, when fully considered, reveals who you are and what you stand for. It puts your best foot forward and communicates legitimacy, and in doing so, opens doors that are typically reserved for more established groups. In the later stages of a non-profit’s existence, a redesign can show a renewed energy and focus, driving the organization to continued success. More crucially, visual language and design provide non-profits with defining characteristics, creating both distinction and alignment with similar organizations. While everyone wants to support a good cause, at the end of the day, sponsors, board members, and the press are more apt to engage and partner with an organization conveying professionalism and legitimacy, over one that has put less thought into visually communicating their mission. 

Design creates a foundation for clear communication 

At its core, the day-to-day of most non-profit groups is split between mission execution and fundraising. In the first few years of an organization, you will be focused on not just executing your idea, but communicating your efficacy, your needs, and your successes. These tasks require a lot of externally facing pieces of collateral: fliers, social media content, event marketing materials, yearly reports, donor cards, and on, and on. For best engagement results, all of these digital or printed collateral pieces should look and feel cohesive. 

When you invest time or funds into developing brand standards and an online presence, you create a repeatable path for your team to follow—a harmonious vision that can be continued regardless of the medium or message. 

Brand standards offer a foundation, a set of guidelines for clear communication. With typefaces, color palette, and photography rules established, you and your team can focus more on mission and message and less on in-the-moment design decisions. 

It’s easy to consider any level of design an accessory to your story, a non-essential investment, when you’re focused so intently on bringing good to the world— but taking the time to craft your visual narrative is imperative. A strong brand signals and contributes to a strong organizational foundation. 

Every day, there are thousands of well-meaning people who feel driven to make change. For those founders who see their purpose in the world spanning beyond the cause of the minute, design is an essential part of creating a platform to take action and do good in a focused way, even once the newness and passion of a new venture fall away.