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How Nonprofits & Design Firms Collaborate to Change the World

March 14, 2015

Collaborating-GroupLike siblings separated at birth, nonprofits and design firms are connected by a common bond: to understand the world around us and to create new ways to make it better, more rewarding, and more meaningful. We do this, usually, not for ourselves, but for the satisfaction we get from helping others.

Nonprofits bring passion, dedication, and expertise to the often complex problems they are trying to solve. Design firms bring a similar passion, dedication, and expertise to the work of designing experiences. While the specifics of what we do and the way we do it may be different, at our cores nonprofits and design firms share similar values and a commitment to the greater good.

What makes being part of a firm that works with nonprofits so rewarding is that every day I have the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from experts in different fields who are hard at work addressing some of the world's greatest challenges. It's like earning a post-graduate degree in "How the World Works." Even better, I get to take this continuous learning and apply the skills I've acquired over the course of my career to collaborate on meaningful work that helps nonprofits make a difference.

For those with whom we collaborate, a firm like ours offers an equally deep reservoir of expertise — expertise that can help them turn their missions, research, and programs into brand experiences that connect people to big ideas — and each other. We also bring a fresh set of eyes and ears, providing a valuable outside perspective on how effectively an organization's messaging resonates with its target audiences.

A Shared Mission & Vision

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that the key to a successful partnership between a client and a design firm is that both parties must engage in the spirit of active listening and share a commitment to both learn from, and educate, each other. Whether we're working with nonprofit clients who are well versed in the principles of design or relative novices, the best partnerships hinge on whether, and how much, everyone is committed to establishing a relationship based on trust, respect, and a shared vision. You simply cannot produce effective work without it. What's also needed is a commitment to always doing what's best for the work — which means a willingness to challenge the ideas of others, to have your own ideas challenged, and to check assumptions and preconceived notions at the door.

Last summer, Philanthropy News Digest approached me about writing a column dedicated to facilitating just this sort of dynamic among its many readers. I envision the column, which will appear in monthly installments over the next twelve months or so, as helping to create a space for members of the nonprofit and design communities to engage with each other on important branding and communications issues that affect how they carry out their missions. Named after the practice area we've built at Constructive over the last fourteen years to help nonprofits develop strategic branding and interactive experiences that get results, Cause-Driven Design®, as the column is called, is intended to inspire and instruct.

Our mission is to provide a new perspective on how better brand experiences can help your organization increase its impact while helping you become a more educated, engaged, and effective contributor to the process of creating them. Along the way, we'll look to shine a light on the design process, demystify some of its more technical aspects, and make commonsense connections between sound strategic thinking and creative execution.

So, What Is Cause-Driven Design?

Before I answer the question "What is cause-driven design?", I want to touch on a more fundamental one: "What is design?" The definition I've adopted, brought to my attention by branding expert Marty Neumeier, comes from Herbert Simon, a Nobel-Prize winning political scientist, economist, and sociologist:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.

So, when we think of design, we must first recognize that pretty much everyone – and not just "creative people"— designs in one way or another. Nonprofit organizations, committed to creating positive change in the world, are continuously engaged in the act of design.

Second, when we "design," we're not necessarily creating actual things (like websites or annual reports). Moreover, whatever it is we are creating, it almost always involves a complex, interdisciplinary system of ideas, actions, and messaging that, with a lot of hard work and a little luck, will alter a situation from what it is to what we'd like it to be.

Organizational planning? Design. Copywriting? Design. Software development? Design. That workaround you used to fix your leaky faucet until the plumber showed up? You get the point.

Design, as every good designer knows, is nothing without context. And context, to be meaningful, requires us to look at things from a whole bunch of perspectives, then thinking them through before we sit down to "design" that report cover, tagline, data visualization, or website. To borrow an analogy from the medical field, we've got to diagnose the situation before we can prescribe a course of treatment.

So what is cause-driven design? As its name implies, it is a process whose central organizing principle has to do with more effectively engaging and educating audiences on and about issues, connecting them to causes they care about, and delivering more meaningful brand experiences that help advance a mission and lead to greater impact (however an organization defines "impact"). Whether the nonprofit in question operates on the front lines of an urgent social issue or works more quietly behind the scenes, it is about understanding the context in which the really important questions are formulated, then aligning every messaging effort to explain why the answers to the questions are important.

At its best, cause-driven design cuts through the clutter of our busy lives, calms our over-stimulated brains, and helps to organize the plethora of choices we all face, every day. It unites strategy, content, design, and technology in ways that enables your nonprofit to more effectively engage with its principal audiences and speak more meaningfully to their deeper needs, goals, and motivations. It's bigger than the brand, it's bigger than design; it's the mission or cause we're driven to take up.

Looking Ahead

So, at this point, I hope you have a better idea about the organizing principle of our monthly column and the topics I'll be discussing in it. Even more important, I hope you see that there's real value in cause-driven design — and that you'll come back month after month to participate in the ongoing conversation we hope to have here. In that spirit, I'll be soliciting ideas and feedback from you after each article is published, and I encourage all of you to let me know how this forum can be of most help to you. Needless to say, if I do my job well, I'll learn as much in the process of writing the articles as you do reading them.

Headshot_matt_schwartzDon't be shy. Use the comments section below to send me your feedback — I'll be on the lookout. Or, if you want to get in touch with me directly and/or suggest a topic for exploration, email me at matt.schwartz@constructive.co.

Matt Schwartz is the founder and director of strategy at Constructive, a New York City-based design and brand strategy firm specializing in nonprofits and education. For more articles in Matt's Cause-Driven Design® series, click here.

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