3 ways to rethink nonprofit design

Alex Bigman

Nonprofit organizations don’t operate like for-profit organizations. Should they be designed like them?

There are many reasonable questions a designer might encounter upon striking up a professional relationship with a not-for-profit company. What sort of hierarchy will best suit the website? Are there special rules for designing a nonprofit logo, as opposed to a for-profit one? How much, if anything, do you charge?

As nonprofits become more tech savvy, these quandaries are only going to become more regular in the design community. We spent some time thinking them through, and here’s what we have to say.

Web design for nonprofits

If you’ve ever designed a website for a for-profit company, you’re probably more than familiar with the term “call to action.” Often considered to be the crux of the website, this is the component that urges the visitor to buy whatever service or product the company is selling. Pretty important.

But a nonprofit isn’t really “selling” anything, is it? This question is best answered by dividing the world of nonprofit companies in three. There are:

Those which sell

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 7.04.06 PM

One type of nonprofit relies heavily on small donations from regular people, sometimes locally, sometimes all over the world. It is typically involved in charity work—for example, the Food Bank of New Jersey shown above.

To achieve its mission, this type of nonprofit needs to essentially sell its mission or idea to potential donors, much in the way that a for-profit sells a product. This being the case, the website will take a similar form, with a central call to action (“click here to donate” or something like that) surrounded by information about why you should—for example, photographs of people who will be benefitted, or compelling data about the cause.

Those which inform

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 7.09.06 PM

Another type of nonprofit might also do charitable work or pursue some other such noble cause, but gets its funding primarily from major donors or grants, and so does not rely as heavily on “converting” casual website visitors. Consider Dadaab Stories, which is committed to bringing awareness to life within a Somalian refugee camp by telling the stories of its inhabitants.

That being the case, this type of nonprofit is best served by websites that concentrate more on the nonprofit’s “story”—telling how it started, showing what it has achieved, and providing information about how people can get involved.

Those which invite

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 7.10.03 PM

A third type of nonprofit is an organization like the Public Art Fund that provides some sort of public good to a specific communities. They are often places that can be visited, and so a good website should above all be inviting. It should show potential users all of the great events and resources to which they have access.

Logo design for nonprofits

The point of a logo is to distinguish a brand from its competitors. It’s a little strange (though not always incorrect) to think of nonprofits as having “competitors.”

girl scouts

On the other hand, brand recognition may still be of great importance for a nonprofit—particularly if it is the first type described above, which depends on “selling” its goal to an ever-widening base of supporters.

The other two types of nonprofits simply need to look professional, and have a strong identity system that will work across all the media they use, from letterhead sent to grant agencies and major donors, to signage at public areas that the nonprofit makes available.

Long story short, no. A good logo is a good logo. Just look at these stylin’ nonprofits:

juma

 

livestrong

 

acumen

Doing business with nonprofits

Many designers do work for nonprofits because they believe in the cause and want to do their part. But just because the client is noble and not deep-pocketed, does that mean you should necessarily work pro bono?

(Here at 99designs, we started our 99nonprofits program to help alleviate this potentially tricky situation. Nonprofits like PBF Portal can apply for the program and, if selected, are given credits to run a design contest free of charge. But this is of course a special case.)

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It depends. Sometimes a nonprofit really just cannot afford to pay for design services—for instance, if it has yet to receive substantial funding—and in this case, if you believe in the cause and want to help out, your only option will be to work without pay. As long as you can do this while still keeping food on your table, it can make for truly rewarding work.

In general, though, most professionals will advise you not to offer to work for free, because when a client is written a blank check in this way, the situation tends to get out of hand. Before you know it, your lucky nonprofit client is assigning you more work and demanding even more revisions than your for-profit clients do, because they don’t have to worry about footing the bill. A better solution is to work for a fee that is lower than your usual amount, but still high enough to deter such an imbalanced situation.

Do you have any advice about working for nonprofit clients? Share in the comments!

The author

Alex Bigman
Alex Bigman

Alex contributes from New York City on topics ranging from branding and typography to the history of design.

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