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

Light a Candle

photo of golden candles and twinkling lightsThere’s not a single designer I know who, upon receiving a freshly printed copy of a new publication or clicking on a just-launched website that they designed, doesn’t immediately spot something that they wish could be fixed or improved. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse, this tendency to fixate on details. But in an effort to hew to the adage “it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” let’s take a moment to appreciate a few of the things that make working in nonprofit design and marketing worthy of thanks.

More than in the private sector, where passions tend to favor profits over people, most people who work for nonprofit organizations do so because they care – about the mission, about doing good, about helping others, about making the world a better place. Life is too short – and we spend too much of it at work – to spend it on things we don’t care about. I’m thankful for people who follow their heart.

We live in a time of nearly unprecedented disruption and upheaval. Changes to the way we communicate, raise funds, learn, travel, and consume everything from movies to medications can cause uncertainty and anxiety, but these changes also represent tremendous opportunities. I’m thankful for living in a time when the status quo is being questioned relentlessly, and conditions are ripe for change.

The phone that I have in my pocket is more powerful than the computer that was on my desktop twenty years ago. From file sharing to Facebook to Photoshop, from gigabytes to Google, our remarkable advances in technology are a great equalizer. Tools and software that were once non-existent or cost-prohibitive to nonprofit organizations are now essential and readily available. I’m thankful that technology makes it ever easier to do previously unimaginable things.

Nonprofit organizations tend to take the long view. When you’re tackling some of humanity’s most challenging problems – poverty, education, abuse, hunger – it’s probably wise not to rely on quarterly reports to boost your self-esteem. Persistence in the face of long odds and slow progress is a requirement both to one’s sanity and developing innovative solutions. I’m thankful for both the patience required to dream big, and the impatience necessary to avoid settling.

In addition to the reasons above, I like working with people who work in the nonprofit sector because they tend to be bright, collegial, and generally good humored. It’s not like it’s a laugh-a-minute trying to advance the human condition, but in my experience tough problems often call for a lighter touch. I’m thankful for people who don’t check their humanity at the office door.

Americans are remarkably generous. Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, I think that deep down we maintain an unwavering belief in our responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. As one of my clients once said, “People don’t give you money because you need it. They give you money because they feel they can make a difference.” I’m thankful for all the people who donate time and money to make our world better, and our nonprofit organizations possible.

Often, it’s the little things that make working in the nonprofit world a gratifying experience. I’m thankful for wonderful collaborators, audacious dreamers, and enough candles to light the way.

What are you thankful for?

Who Do We Appreciate?

As I completed the rounds of my early morning workout, one thing struck me about the news stories silently blinking at me from the big screens placed strategically throughout our neighborhood gym. There was an abundance of stories on holiday shopping. Will consumers spend more? Are retailers happy? What does this mean for the economy?

Missing in all the hype, which seems to come earlier and grow greater by the year, was any mention of the upcoming holiday, Thanksgiving, which is treated as a mere speed bump on the way to something far more exciting – the next big purchase.

From an early age, we teach our children to have good manners, to say “please” and “thank you.” During this season, of all seasons, we should pause to consider how we’re thanking those who have helped us this past year.

Tokens of gratitude
Ask and ye shall receive. In the nonprofit world, fail to properly thank your generous benefactors and you shall not be so fortunate next time.

Above all forms of donor recognition, the handwritten thank you note still reigns. Including success stories – not just quantifiable results – provides an emotional reward for your donors and builds trust that their money made a difference.

Building on that idea, Terry Axelrod, in his book The Joy of Fundraising writes: Most donors don’t need plaques or trinkets, which often cause them to question your spending priorities. Donors want to see what their gifts allowed you to accomplish – specific facts and stories of how they changed the lives of real people.

Personal recognition
How well do you know your donors and their motivations? Generally speaking, people give to your organization because they value the work you do and believe their support will yield positive change. But general knowledge isn’t enough.

Is this a first-time donor or a regular contributor? Is the donor increasing their gift this year or returning after an absence of a year or more? Do they prefer receiving personal phone calls or electronic communication?

Everyone probably knows a terrific gift giver, the kind of person who makes a mental note in a casual conversation and then surprises you months later with an especially appropriate birthday present. Knowing your donors, finding out why someone is giving and affirming that in follow up communications, ensures a level of personal attention that makes recognition meaningful.

Distinct and appropriate
Image of donor recognition wall at San Francisco Food BankYour donors, and their reasons for giving, are as unique as your organization. Every time you communicate with your supporters, including but not limited to thank you notes, represents an opportunity to reinforce that distinct mutual interest.

Image of AIGA exhibition wallGood designers often help illuminate and advance an organization’s mission through the clever repurposing of appropriate materials, as with the San Francisco food bank that used the bottoms of empty cans to build a donor recognition wall, the AIGA exhibition that doubled as a fundraiser for a program that taught painting and life skills to at-risk youth, or the paper recycler that used scraps of their own cardboard shipping boxes for an annual report cover.

Image of annual report cover for paper recyclerShowing appreciation for and sharing information with your supporters is an ongoing responsibility that shouldn’t be limited to an organization’s fundraisers. In successful organizations, it’s a pervasive culture that influences everything you do.

It feels good
Finally, while you’re at it, don’t forget to thank the many board members, staff, volunteers and colleagues that help make your job meaningful and rewarding. Remember, when someone says thanks, they make you happy, but research shows they make themselves even happier. In her book The How of Happiness, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky describes a dozen strategies to increase personal happiness. The first? Express gratitude.