What do baby animals have to do with nonprofits?

What do baby animals have to do with nonprofits?

Not a thing, but that didn’t stop Vu Le (creator of the popular blog, Nonprofit AF) from incorporating baby animal pictures on every slide of his keynote presentation at the Arc of Innovation Conference. In between the baby animal photos, he shared generously about his experience and ideas for the challenges and opportunities of nonprofits.

We decided to share some of the insights we gained, and how those insights helped us see where design fits in the larger nonprofit landscape.

Nonprofits are obsessed with funding because nonprofit funding is often insecure and micro-managed. If you work for a nonprofit you must be scrappy, be efficient, be of service, and court donors and grants and any funding sources you can find. Build trust with the donors, build trust with the communities, build trust with coworkers, and don’t forget your self-care! As Le put it, “Nonprofits take care of what the public sector and private sector leave behind.”

Nonprofits are high-pressure businesses, more than any other business model. The expectation of doing more with less is greater with nonprofits than with any other type of organization. Having all of this in perspective makes it clear why organizations would be reluctant to invest in design. Good design can be seen as an “extra,” a way to perform, but something that doesn’t contribute to the impactful work of serving communities.

In managing so many sets of expectations and needs, what many people don’t realize is that design can really help you! We know that consistency builds trust, and visual brand consistency is part of this. Design is not a performance, it gives dimension to your message and cultivates credibility.

You should be able to work with a designer who can understand your organization, get the work done, and not add additional staff.

We see design as a vital part of the trust building process. Having printed materials that are consistently branded and thoughtfully designed can only improve your trust building efforts.

Your organization can have a compelling mission, be doing great work, and not get the attention it deserves merely because your brochure is confusing, the hierarchy is unclear, and people can’t easily make sense of it, so it’s discarded before the information is even considered. Design cannot compensate for a lack of strategy, but it can elevate the things that are already working.

Design plays a vital role in communicating effectively. Vu Le understood this with his baby animals. He broke a rule by adding images that were irrelevant to his talk. But breaking the rules can be just as effective as following them. Le added humor to the situation and relaxed the audience, which made us receptive to his messages.

Having materials that are clear and cohesive captivates your audience. A reader might not know why they find a brochure appealing, but they’ll understand the message at an emotional level.  At its best, design visually reinforces another message.

Amplifying an existing strategic message is where Union Design thrives, we love taking design to the next level.

Get in touch to see how we can help you!

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Meet Krysta Ann Williams

Meet Krysta Ann Williams

“I’m tired of working by myself. I need another person around to bounce ideas off of, get some movement.”

Those were Judy’s words during a summer 2017 meeting of small business owners. (Why not written in the first person? Because Judy isn’t writing this. I’m here to let you in on an open secret. It’s Krysta Williams, the marketing assistant & artist who has been writing these posts for the past year. Hi. Thanks for reading. Sorry for the trickery.)

“It would be so cool to work for someone like Judy!” I heard myself respond to Judy’s frustration in a way I didn’t expect. I wasn’t looking for a job, I hate marketing, and yet, something compelled me. So I decided to reach out.

I didn’t really know what I was offering, though. I’m curious, I like understanding how things work and I felt that I could help her. But when it came time to sit down and work, get things done, I was definitely intimidated. I wanted to do a good job, to show that I was worth the risk, and I wasn’t 100% sure what that looked like.

Judy’s approach seemed casual and I didn’t know if she had expectations she wasn’t communicating (scary!), or was truly open to seeing what I came up with (freeing!). Turns out, she trusted me to figure things out a little and had created space for imperfection and learning in the business. We both felt lucky that our working styles complement one another. I didn’t feel micromanaged, and she didn’t feel the need to hold my hand. Win-win!

Judy here. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what it would look like when Krysta joined me in the studio. I was looking for help with marketing and I hoped that she would be able to develop some of the writing and thinking that I had been doing into more polished blog posts. I needed to have these tasks off my plate so that I could focus on being a designer and putting some energy into growing the vision for this business. And I was ready for more collaboration. I wanted to bring some new energy and ideas into the studio. 

But I didn’t have a to-do list or a specific path laid out. I figured that the best thing was to let Krysta focus on the kind of work that she was most interested in doing. Krysta is smart and I trust her. So, I gave her some latitude to create her own job.

As she settled into her new role, we had many conversations about design, art, business and the challenges of growing a small design studio. Krysta dug into the blog, editing and finishing drafts of posts that I had written. She also initiated and wrote posts on her own, based on our conversations. It was a game changer for me to see the blog grow. So many of these ideas had been rattling around my head for years. As Krysta put them into a coherent format, I was able to see the body of knowledge that I had developed.

Seeing the blog grow helped me in two ways. First, I was able to relax a bit, knowing that the marketing end of things was being taken care of. I felt supported by the work she was doing. And I allowed myself the mental space to think about other aspects of the business. Second, I was better able to trust my own expertise. The blog posts showed me how much knowledge of strategy I had gained over the years, and solidified my stance that strategy must underpin any successful design.

We’ve been working together for a little over a year and it feels like we are just getting started. Does it really take a full year to get up to speed? In some ways, it sure does. And it is a smart investment for me. Krysta has learned a lot by observing the business through the ups and downs of the year. It has also given me some time to adjust to having the support of an assistant and learning how to balance giving direction and allowing space. 

We’ll be continuing this conversation and talking more about what’s next for Union Design. Stay tuned. Sign up for our postcard and email lists.

You can learn more about Krysta at krystaannwilliams.com.

About the photo (by Judy):

This portrait of Krysta in Lake Michigan is an extension of the daily sunrise photos I have been taking this year (see them here: instagram.com/judyhiggins). Documenting the lake and the sky every morning at sunrise has been healing for me and has filled up my creative well. By showing up for myself—and sharing my experience with others—my connection to nature and to art has deepened. As Krysta and I grow Union Design, I am also growing and challenging myself creatively, doing more personal work and bringing my point of view as an artist to my work at Union Design.



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