The Design-Driven Mandate: For Today's Nonprofits, Design Determines Impact

Many supporters will only interact with your organization via branded digital channels and communications. The result? Design determines your impact.

April 22nd Articles 5 min read
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By Eric Ressler

Your organization’s branding and experience design are now, more than ever, critical to your success. That's because the majority of branded experiences are now mediated through digital platforms. From making a donation and registering for a fundraising event through a website to signing a digital petition and sharing a campaign update on social media, the range of digitized, branded interactions goes far beyond advertising.

The most iconic brands have always been design-driven. Today, however, frictionless and delightful branded experiences are prerequisites for the success of all modern brands — including nonprofits. For organizations in the social impact space, excellent design has graduated from a "nice to have" differentiator to a mandate.

In a digital-first world, the way your organization uses design to build and express your brand is the link that connects your audience to your mission. And it's never neutral. Your design work is either working for you or against you. Your goal, then, is to ensure that it moves you forward rather than holds you back.

Nonprofits and the New Design-Driven Imperative

We don’t have to tell you that nonprofits have historically lagged behind for-profit businesses when it comes to branding, marketing, and communications. Of course, many social impact organizations have long understood that marketing and communications aren’t optional. Rather, they are true impact multipliers. Too often, however, funders have relegated marketing and communications to “overhead” and left nonprofits to fend for themselves when it comes to this crucial function.

Up until now, many nonprofits have managed to make do on a shoestring marketing program — one in which design is necessarily put on the back burner. But all of that is quickly changing.

For one thing, the social impact space is becoming increasingly crowded. Nonprofits must now compete not only with one another, but with social enterprises and even for-profit companies, too. As more and more organizations get savvy with their branding and fundraising, a new bar is being set for the social impact space overall.

It all adds up to this: Your cause’s worthiness is no longer enough in and of itself to spark engagement and drive impact.

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Why Nonprofits Need to Focus on Design in a Digital-First World

Over the years, nonprofits have traditionally reached out to supporters (and would-be supporters) using a variety of methods. This includes everything from door-to-door canvassing and telephone outreach to print ads, email, and direct mail.

More recently, however, the tides have turned. While some of these traditional marketing and communications methods are still effective, the vast majority of individuals’ interactions with nonprofits are now digitally mediated.

In fact, with the exception of those who volunteer or do boots-on-the-ground work related to your cause, many of your supporters will only ever interact with your organization via branded digital channels and communications. These include your website, social media channels, paid ads, and email communications. The result? Your audience’s entire experience of your organization — who you are, what you stand for, and why it’s so important — is, for better or worse, branded.

In this context, design is critical. Your organization must invest in and leverage excellent design. From the way you visually present your brand to the voice you construct in copy and written materials, you must capture your audience’s limited attention and inspire action using design.

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How to Give Your Nonprofit the Design-Driven Edge

The most effective nonprofits are shifting more effort and thought into their brand, messaging, and digital experiences to compete with consumer-focused brands. If your organization hasn't yet made design a top priority, here's how to get started.

The first step in becoming design-driven is non-negotiable. You must get your fundamentals in order, including your brand, messaging, digital hub, and communications platform. For many nonprofit organizations, this initial step may seem impossibly large. It’s OK if it doesn’t happen right away. The important thing is that you begin working now to put the necessary pieces in place.

Once you’ve laid the foundation, the next step is to foster a design-driven culture within your organization. You know you have a design-driven culture when you place the same value on your marketing and communication efforts as you do your program work. That’s because you understand that your design-driven marketing efforts are absolutely necessary to maximize your organization’s impact. When your organization develops a design-driven culture, design work isn’t an ad hoc afterthought. It’s something you build into the strategic plan for any new initiative from the very beginning. And you make sure you have the capacity, either in-house or with a partner, to properly support your design-related needs on an ongoing basis — and do it well.

Depending on where your organization currently stands, this may seem like a tall order. That’s especially true if you’re used to partnering with funders who don’t prioritize your organization’s marketing and communications. The good news? More and more funders are embracing true cost funding. By seeking out the most forward-thinking funders, you can find a way to bring the design-driven mandate within reach.

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Design-Driven 2.0: How Design Thinking Can Revolutionize the Way Your Nonprofit Operates

When it comes to becoming design-driven, the third and final tier has to do with embracing design thinking. The idea of design thinking goes way beyond marketing and communications. Instead, it’s a way of approaching problems that has the potential to change the way you operate.

At base, design thinking is a methodical approach to problem-solving that seeks to keep your end users — the people you are hoping to engage or activate — front and center. While design thinking has its roots in product development, it is now in the process of being adopted by forward-thinking individuals in the social impact space.

Developing a design-thinking mindset gives your team a new framework to work through biases, address social and environmental problems, and transform the way you find solutions. Once you embrace design thinking, you see that isn’t just something you do in a workshop or leadership retreat and then go back to business as usual. It has the power to change the culture and behavior of your organization as you develop deeper empathy for those you serve and reverse-engineer solutions based on real needs.

Of course, design thinking for social innovation isn’t the end-all-be-all. But it does have the potential to become an incredibly important tool in your toolbox.

Your social impact organization is committed to changing the world for the better. By adopting a design-driven approach, you can connect with your key audiences in a way that moves the needle on your mission.

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