OPINION: If your nonprofit message matters, design matters

great designThis post is for nonprofit boards and the nonprofit staff who love them.

I was reading this blog post from Good magazine, and it made me think of those board meetings, when everyone’s sitting around listing all the to-dos for the annual fundraiser. This is for those of you who, when you start to wonder how you’re going to promote the fundraiser, think, “Do I know anyone who can design the invitation for free?”

Don’t. Cheap. Out.

Here’s why:

1. Cheap shows. When you get an intern or a junior designer or even a design firm on pro-bono (which, by the way, uses the project to keep its interns and junior designers busy) to design your collateral for really cheap or free, it shows.

And please, do not call in your nephew on this one. InDesign and a Mac do not a designer make. Just because you have a hammer, some nails, a measuring tape, and some wood doesn’t mean you should be building your own deck.Get a pro. They’ll make it right.

2. Cheap, in the end, can cost you more. When you get an inexperienced person to create your collateral, they may not know enough about production, printing, mailing, materials, etc to save you money.

So the invitation might look great from the printer, but now you’ve got an odd-size envelope to mail, which means extra postage. Or you’ve got signage for an event that looks exactly like the hotel signage – and you have to start from scratch. A million things can go wrong. An experienced designer knows how to avoid them.

3. Cheap is not what your donors – or prospects – want to see. Think of it this way – if all your donors, volunteers, prospects, and supporters were in a room, would you send the intern or junior member of your staff to talk about your fundraiser? While you might think the professionally designed invitation makes it looks like you blew money on a fancy designer, from the recipient’s perspective, it looks like you’re an organization that’s going places.

If you’re unemployed and broke, you don’t show up to a job interview in tatters. You bust out the good suit, shine the shoes, and try to look like a million dollars.

Besides, the pro is a better value every time. Good design is worth every penny.

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5 Comments on OPINION: If your nonprofit message matters, design matters

  1. These are all great points.

    Too often, nonprofits think like “non-profits” and not like businesses. The old adage, “to make money you sometimes have to spend money” applies to nonprofits, too. Professional designers earn their fees, and good local ones are not that hard to find. (Check out the Freelance Austin and AIGA sites for a start – http://www.freelance-austin.org, http://aigaaustin.org/)

    Thanks for addressing the topic so well.

  2. The GOOD Magazine blog made a great point, much like yours, about how npos need to think differently today.

    And you’re right – Austin has a wealth of experienced, talented designers. We should support them the way we support local musicians, restaurants, and other small business people.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. THANK YOU for writing this. Three years after it was posted, I’m still arguing with my non-profit superiors about why the research interns should not be given the design jobs that I don’t have time to do (because I’ve also been told I can’t have another designer to help). I’m printing this and will be passing it along in an effort to keep fighting the good fight. It’s comforting to know that these are not just my own “self-important notions,” but that they’re facts.
    THANK YOU.

  4. Such a great point! There are so many ideas, missions and organizations competing for attention. Good design is a critical component to being “heard”, and GREAT design makes it even easier for those folks to understand what you have to say. Just remember that pro-bono work doesn’t have to mean you can’t have expectations for the end result – including deadlines, options and the ability to give feedback. Consider contracting with them for $1 and include your expectations in the contract language.

  5. This is spot on correct. I spent years at agencies wondering why my non-profits would waste good money on beautiful printed pieces. Now, I realize that the relatively small expense at that point means a higher return in the end. Don’t get me wrong, non-profits don’t need to be excessive in this area, but bleeding every designer they know to get free work isn’t the way to get the BEST work either.

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