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Design Intervention: Three Pros Offer Enlightening Tips for Cash-Strapped Nonprofit Organizations

Do your marketing materials, social posts, and printed collateral look a little homemade? Is there a subtle, yet unmistakable, DIY vibe to your website?  It’s OK - there’s no shame in the bootstrapping game. For most nonprofits, having a graphic designer on staff or on annual retainer would be nothing short of a miracle. But, in this digital age, can anyone really afford not to invest wisely in their image and online presence? 


If your already-shoestring budget is in jeopardy of being further reduced or reallocated, the burden of ‘pick and choose’ spending is about to get even more excruciating. I checked in with three veteran graphic designers to find out, when push comes to shove, what nonprofits can reasonably do on their own and what design expenditures must remain sacred. 


The Experts

Molly AhearnPresident of the Full Deck Design firm; 

Katy Dwyer, President & Creative Director of the Katy Dwyer Design firm; and 

Julia Gomelsky, LA-based freelance designer, art director, and photographer.  

These professional graphic designers are no strangers to working with nonprofits and they know how to deliver services to fit a modest budget. There’s no denying that creating a solid design foundation requires a little upfront investment but the effort can be very cost-effective over time. They each recommend starting out with a designer to develop brand guidelines that help teams stay consistent and “on brand” with homegrown treatments. And, they suggest formulating branding for hallmark programs and events that can be repurposed or updated regularly at little or no cost. Here, also, are their best edicts and advice on other important aspects of design:


On Websites

KD: Websites are complex and DIY website builders don’t teach you how to create a successful user interface, user experience, site map, and calls-to-action. Since nonprofits rely on their sites to drive engagement, awareness, and donations, this project should be left to the professionals. 

JG: Once a site is designed, staff can be responsible for making regular updates and adding content - and content is king. Always support your text with appropriate imagery and links to explore more. 

MA: Add a call to action on each page (join our email list, support us, find out more, contact us) and have a prominent donate button. Also, frequently check your page analytics (Google Analytics is great) to see what content gets the most attention and how people are accessing your site. For instance, if most people are viewing your site on a mobile device, be sure your design is optimized for that platform (or can dynamically shift to match the device). 


On Social Media

KD: Make a plan! A monthly editorial calendar will take the struggle out of deciding what to post. If multiple people are posting to your account, be sure they all use the same brand voice. Pay attention to your social insights and understand what types of posts get the most engagement. And, don’t overpost.

JG: Mix it up! Use a combination of image posts and text posts. And always include your logo. 

MA: Tell Your Story! Use your social channels to make an emotional connection with your audience. Use high-quality photos (and consistent headers) to inspire viewers to engage with your mission.


On Print Media

KD: Work with a professional - it doesn’t have to be expensive. A local print shop can be a fantastic resource - and may even have design services available. 

JG: Always use high-resolution images for print and make sure the final file is either a vector (PDF) or a high-res JPG (300 dpi). 

MA: Speak their language: have materials available in the languages of your audience. 


On Stock Photos

KD: is a free stock photo site that anyone can use. 

JG: I love for free, beautiful photography. Vecteezy is also a good resource for free illustrations and vector files. 

MA: Stock photos can be great for organizations that cannot photograph program participants. Remember to emphasize diversity. 


On Canva & PicMonkey

KD: Although professionals don’t use it, Canva can be helpful for the DIYer.  

JG: Any online photo editor is great for non-designers to size down and crop images, as well as adjust colors, brightness, and contrast as needed. 

MA: Canva can be a blessing or a curse. Most users don’t use it well enough to create materials that conform to their brand guidelines. It may best be used for developing social media images because stock images are included as part of the platform. 

All three design gurus agree that there are ways to stretch a design budget, however modest, to make the most of professional services. Many graphic designers will offer special rates to nonprofits or create a list of deliverables to match the available funds. The important thing is to have a line item for marketing that includes design services. How much? Think at least 5% of your annual expense budget for marketing and, if you’re starting from scratch on major projects like website or logo design, make sure a significant portion of that 5% is earmarked for design. 


Great design is within reach and, to drive home the spiritual metaphors even further, can provide a transcendent experience for your organization. Skillful design (whether homemade or professional) delivers your mission directly to the hearts and minds of your audience - and that’s  exactly where you need to be.


I made this on Canva in about 20 minutes:




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