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Design or Not to Design? Does It Matter?

February 12, 2014

(Derrick Feldmann is president of Achieve, a creative research and campaigns agency based in Indianapolis. In his previous post, he blogged about the fundraising secrets of internationally focused nonprofits.)

Feldmann_headshotAs the dust settles on another hectic fundraising season, I've been taking some time to sift through the direct mail and e-mail donation requests I received. It seems like the past year was extra busy for many organizations, and there was a lot of competition for my attention and charitable support as the year came to an end.

When analyzing the various pieces, I typically start with design, putting those that stick to a basic black-and-white format and avoid graphics other than an organization's logo in one pile and those that incorporate the latest design trends and National Geographic-quality photographs in another.

I also sort the pitch letters based on degree of personalization. A lot of them start with a generic salutation like "Dear Friend…," which always makes me smile and think: How can we be friends when I don't even know you? Then there are letters that address me as "Derrick" – well, because apparently we're on a first-name basis.

As someone who deals on a regular basis with fundraising campaigns, direct-mail appeals, and e-mail solicitations, I can almost always spot the pieces that were done in-house, as opposed to those created by an agency or outside contractor. In most cases, there's a certain polish to the latter, and you can tell the organization has paid good money to achieve that look and feel.

But does it matter? Do sharp, well-designed pieces lead to more and bigger donations than bland, generic pitches created by an in-house team?

Actually, not so much. As a number of recent studies show, a simple direct-mail or e-mail pitch is likely to raise just as much money as a well-designed piece. Indeed, according to fundraising expert Rachel Beer, A and B testing demonstrates that "something plain, functional, and straightforward will often out-perform something that is beautifully art directed or conceptual."

So if the design of your fundraising solicitations doesn't really matter, what does matter?

Brand. Your nonprofit's brand is what matters.

As the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations' Nathalie Kylander and Christopher Stone put it in a 2012 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, "Strong brands in all sectors help organizations acquire financial, human and social resources, and build key partnerships. The trust that strong brands elicit also provides organizations with the authority and credibility to deploy those resources more efficiently and flexibly than can organizations with weaker brands."

Speaking from my own experience, I often give to organizations that do good work even when their solicitations fall flat. My connection to a cause – whether as a volunteer, knowing someone who has benefited from an organization's services, or as a past donor – always is more important than how good an organization's fundraising materials look.

That said, I do pay attention, and tend to be more favorably disposed, to brands and organizations that tell their story well. And that makes sense. Your organization is competing against hundreds of other organizations competing for the same limited pool of dollars, and if your fundraising solicitations leave potential donors with a positive impression, you're likely (though not guaranteed) to see it show up in your fundraising results.

Nonprofits understand this. The problem is, most of them don't have the resources to create professionally designed fundraising solicitations, or they're afraid their loyal supporters will question why they spent scarce resources to create a fancy annual report or slick e-mail pitch.

So how do you decide when to spend resources on design that may or may not contribute to your organization's bottom line? Here are a couple tips that may help:

Focus your design dollars strategically. Your job is to make your organization or cause stand out from the hundreds of other organizations or causes vying for the support of individual donors. By focusing your design dollars on one or two key aspects of a solicitation package, you may be able to create an impression without blowing a hole in your communications/marketing budget.

Design the envelope so it gets opened. Marc Pitman shares this advice in his blog post "8 Steps to Writing Successful Fundraising Appeals." When working on a limited budget, designing an envelope that reinforces your brand and compels people to actually open it might just be the best investment you can make. The rest can be simple. On basic letterhead, tell a great story, make your pitch, and let your call-to-action do the rest.

Consider the time of year. There are certain periods in an annual fundraising cycle when a simple, no-frills ask makes the most sense. Conversely, there are certain times of the year and/or events that call for more – none more so than your end-of-year appeal. That's when and where you want to invest resources in making your brand "sticky."

Take care when introducing something new. Whether it's a strategic plan, a new program, or a key hire, public announcements give you an opportunity to reinforce the association of your organization with key elements of the brand and to leverage the excitement around the announcement into fresh engagement with your organization. It's critical, therefore, that your communications materials are well thought out and produced. Don't leave the job to your summer interns.

Gift-wrap your results. Your board and donors are the people who care enough about your cause or organization to support it with their own money, so don't stint on design and production costs when it's time to report back to them on your fundraising results. Show them that their contributions are making a difference and highlight those elements of the brand that will keep them actively engaged and proud to be associated with your organization.

So, one more time: When it comes to fundraising appeals and solicitations, does design matter?

In terms of actually raising more money, the answer is probably no. But if you broaden the question to include important but less concrete objectives such as brand awareness, design can have a huge impact. In the end, it's all part of that balancing act successful nonprofit managers know so well. To design or not to design? Yes. Just remember: Brand is everything; the rest is up to you.

-- Derrick Feldmann

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Posted by bopercy  |   February 17, 2014 at 04:10 AM

An interesting post, kind of sits on the fence a little. I think design is massively important and should be thought of at every angle. Sprite had it right, Image is everything seen herein...http://www.keepyourcoinsblog.com/2012/11/image-is-everything.html

Posted by Raquel  |   April 24, 2014 at 07:55 PM

I'm really big on design when it comes to everything, so in my mind, the answer at first to "design or not to design" was "of course - design!" Great article - branding counts!

Posted by daniel karanja  |   July 13, 2016 at 04:09 AM

Design, design design. that is the only way we are going to discover new things.

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