May 30, 2013

Why think about design when you start a nonprofit?

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Startup nonprofits are like a startup business. The founder thinks they want to start a nonprofit, but it's really a business, with a nonprofit mission.

good-fortune-thEvery few weeks, we receive inquiries about how to start a nonprofit. The trend seems to be nonprofits that can raise funds, in order to support activities centered on a specific cause and area of need. As designers, we’re not experts in the “how to,” but we would like to offer some thoughts for consideration.

These questions come to us through individuals whom are looking for a firm to design a web site, and most seem to be “meeting with an attorney in a few days to get the paperwork completed.” They seem to equate printers with design firms, meeting with printers to have their logo designed; or seem know somebody who will help design their logo.

These small nonprofits are like a startup business. The founder thinks they want to start a nonprofit. What they are really starting is a business, with a nonprofit mission.

I know what you’re thinking. “A business,” you say, “is for profit, and has management, customers, revenue, and sells goods or services. They want to start a nonprofit.”

Indeed. It’s a business entity that has a mission of nonprofit service; has customers (those to whom services are delivered or who request services); raises funds in order to provide revenue for operating the organization and providing services; and requires a board of directors to provide governance and oversight to the executive director, staff and mission. And design is an essential catalyst to help every successful nonprofit (and business) grow and stay on mission.

What’s not business-like about that?

Two Questions

My first question to these individuals is “Why do you want to start a nonprofit?”

The answer is consistent: “Based on our personal experience, we see a need, and want to raise funds to impact and improve the lives of those whose experience may be similar to ours.”

That’s a worthy objective; my next thought is toward sustainability. These are the type of nonprofits that may struggle to grow and be sustainable in the long term. For any startup entity, startup capital is scarce, and they often cannot afford the fees for creating a communication plan and visual identity, which are essential to creating and maintaining a professional image.

It’s rare for a new nonprofit to have the grant or operational funding available to create a visual identity and web site, and we regret having to decline the opportunity to work with these individuals. (Aespire works with a small number of new clients every year, at a very high level. Typically, these are established nonprofits that have budgeted for or received planning or program grants tht includes funding for design and communication programs).

My second question is always "What other organization is already doing similar work?"

There are two reasons for asking this question:

  1. If there is a competing organization, then how will this new one be different, and what difference will it really make? You may not think of similar organizations as competitors, but there is an aspect of competing for financial resources.
  2. If there is a similar organization, would it make more sense to collaborate, in order to have greater impact? Funders are continually looking to fund organizations that work together to solve problems.

Grantspace has an excellent article to help you think through these questions, about starting a nonprofit.

The web has a variety of reliable and cost-effective resources for these “DIY nonprofits” which enable them to project professionalism during the early stages of their growth. Our research and experience have led us to a few that we think are worth mentioning.

Resources for startup nonprofit branding and web sites

How-to resources, a service of the Foundation Center, is a remarkable resource for nonprofits. One of the first questions I ask is “Have you visited Grant Space or the Foundation Center online?”

If you haven’t you should. Here are the top articles you should read

Visual Identity

You may think of this as branding, but there’s more to it than that. We think that a logo and your visual branding is the most important aspect of creating a professional presence for any nonprofit. We don’t recommend using any online service – many create derivative logo marks based on other designer’s work – so ask friends and colleagues if they can recommend a local designer. Contact your local AIGA chapter; designers often are interested in doing pro bono work for meaningful causes. It makes them feel good, and you’ll get a professionally designed logo and visual identity. Of course, we’re always interested in talking about creating your new visual brand, budget permitting. A professionally-designed visual identity is an essential long-term investment.

Email Marketing:

  • Our first, and only recommendation is Mail Chimp. A starter account is free for up to 2,000 emails per month. It’s drag-and-drop easy to use, and has a robust responsive template that works equally well on desktop and mobile devices. They ask for a simple link to their web site in exchange.

Web Sites

A web site is essential, the second most important aspect of communications after a visual identity. With it you can communicate with your audience and raise funds – two of the nonprofit business aspects that you’ll need to be aware of.

Two options that are very cost-effective are’s Onepager web sites, and the Light CMS – an easy-to-use content management system (CMS).

  • Combine Onepager (that’s all it is – one page for about $3 per year) with a fundraising widget (free), and you have a fundraising web site in little time, with little expense.
  • Light CMS is more robust. From a low-cost 10-page plan to a 100+ page site, it’s scalable and will grow as your organization grows. It has options for accepting online payments, blogging, photo galleries, blogs and surveys – which make it well suited to a startup nonprofit.

Online Fundraising

  • has excellent customer support, simple options for embedded forms, and is a combination payment gateway and merchant account with low processing and transaction fees. Ask about their nonprofit pricing.
  •, a donor advised fund, Razoo provides a fundraising page, a widget (that can be embedded on your web site), and team fundraising pages. Razoo charges 4.9% for every transaction, but provides reporting, EFT and other features that balance the fee with ease-of-use.
  • provides the ability to create generic donation buttons for a lower fee than The downside of generic donations buttons is just that – they are generic.
  • enables users to create custom forms, and integrate the forms with PayPal Payments Pro, Google Checkout and
  • Brain Tree has simple options for embedded forms, and is a combination payment gateway and merchant account with low processing and transaction fees. Combine it with a FleaPay widget and you're accepting donations online in no time.

If you’re starting a nonprofit, or want to start one, we’re confident that these resources that we’ve researched are an excellent place to start you on your journey of mission-driven design. Good fortune does take preparation, and foresight. So does good communication. As a last thought, Heath Shackleford from Good.Must.Grow. offers this perspective on why Fast, Cheap and Easign Design could Kill your Nonprofit. It's a must-read.

When you’re ready – call us. We’ll be waiting to help you move from the startup phase to lasting impact!

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