Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

An Interview with Sue Crolick of Creatives for Causes


Portrait of Art Buddies mentor with student

Photo by Doug Knutson

In 1994, Sue Crolick closed her successful design business to launch Creatives for Causes, a Minneapolis-based non-profit organization focused on inspiring inner-city kids through creativity. Art Buddies, its signature program, pairs creative mentors from advertising and design, one-on-one, with kids from low-income families.

Tell me how Creatives for Causes went from idea to reality?
In the early nineties, I was starting to feel over the hill. Young, talented designers were doing wild and wonderful stuff on the Mac, and I was scared to death of computers. I thought maybe it was time for me to do something else.

I’ve always had a heart for kids who don’t have a lot – my friends call me an unrecovered liberal from the sixties – and I’ve always loved creativity. So I started thinking … wouldn’t it be great to tap the fantastic energy and talent of creative people in my field, and bring it to those kids?

Did you have any experience working with kids?
I had seen how much creative people wanted to give back, ever since we organized an event to help kids at St. Joseph’s Home for Children in 1993. Over the next couple of years, hundreds of volunteers from our local chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) worked with the children – and the volunteers enjoyed it as much as the kids! It was a joy to see.

Still, changing careers must have been a pretty scary leap…
My friends were worried, and my family was really worried, but I had a strong feeling that I was supposed to do this now. I sensed a big reservoir of talent and goodwill within our creative community, waiting to be tapped.

I worked night and day on my dream, fueled by my passion for the cause, and after a couple of years the program was going great. But I was not going great. I was burning out. Running a nonprofit was more exhausting than I’d ever imagined!

Finding balance in life is an art, too. Did you get some help?
Luckily, a gifted young woman appeared and saved us. Stephanie Vagle is wonderful with the children and great with the volunteers. She’s smart, creative, and wise. She was just what we needed, and she’s still working her magic today.

Initially, what kind of marketing did you do to promote the program?
I started out making presentations at AIGA Minnesota’s design conference to recruit volunteers for Art Buddies. I told good stories about some of the first kids we worked with. We had no brochure or website for a long time, just sign-up sheets. We also printed oversized postcards with a reply card at the bottom. Volunteers filled out the card by hand, tore it off, and snail-mailed it to us. Doesn’t that sound ancient?

Action shot of Art Buddies mentor with student

Photo by David Ellis

In the early years, Creatives for Causes and Art Buddies got a lot of nice press from Communication Arts magazine, HOW magazine, and the local newspaper, so we didn’t have to publicize ourselves much. And, we were so busy trying to run the program and fundraise that we didn’t do our own marketing!

How are you marketing yourselves these days?
Now, we send mass emails to recruit and fundraise via an email marketing company, Exact Target. They donate an account to us and are our lifeline! We purposely don’t send monthly online newsletters. In this age of information overload, there is so much coming at people everyday. I think it’s important to ask: How can we stay in touch frequently without being too irritating?

What’s the biggest problem that marketing helped your organization solve?
Our website is huge for us. No organization can thrive without an effective site. We are now able to recruit volunteers, receive donations, show our video and tell our story – all online. Before we had our website, it was so much harder to do those things!

When did you build your site?
Carmichael Lynch helped us design and program it, all pro bono, in 2006. Cindy Schaller of CS Web Concepts and Design was also a great help, and volunteered with us for years. And Creative Arc is helping us update our site right now – again, all pro bono! We are so grateful to these generous donors.

Do you have any tips for finding pro bono help?
Work your network! It sounds simple, but your best prospects for help are people who know you and believe in your cause.

With limited time and resources, how do you prioritize your marketing efforts?
Public relations is absolutely our first priority. It’s free! If you can get coverage in magazines, newspapers, online … this is the best, because it gives you awareness, credibility and costs nothing. But, you have the least control over this, because you can’t force the media to cover you.

Social media is also huge. The trick is to figure out how to make it work for you and your organization. I still don’t know all the answers specific to Creatives for Causes and Art Buddies, but we are working on them. Most of our volunteers are young, so we are asking them to help us figure it out!

And design is at the root of it all. And not just the design of traditional stuff every business needs – website, business cards, brochures – but the design of the organization. If you’re running a nonprofit, how clearly have you identified your service, market, and audience? How consistent is your brand? A good designer can help you think it all through and make a huge difference to your organization!

What’s the favorite part of your job?
I love watching the children transform, watching them go from hesitant and shy to beaming and proud. I believe in the power of creativity to change their lives. I love what Maria, a nine-year-old girl in our program, told us: “I never really knew I was creative before. Now I feel like I could do anything!”

Thanks, Sue. I wish you continued success.

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