Creating design budgets for nonprofits 12.20.12

Almost every design firm I know of has at least one or two nonprofit organizations in their client roster. Some firms even work exclusively with NPOs. Every warm-blooded creative professional wants to partner with clients who seek to enrich, educate, and inspire the world, and who are motivated by love rather than wealth.

It seems there’s a mutual expectation among some cultural nonprofits and designers that work should be done pro bono, or for deeply discounted rates. There are times when it’s appropriate for designers to accept pro bono jobs. For example, let’s say you’re a nonprofit that puts forth a genuine effort to raise a marketing and/or design budget, but are unsuccessful. In such cases, it makes good sense for a designer to work pro bono. But pay attention to the questions your potential designer asks or doesn’t ask. If he or she doesn’t ask about your budget or gives the work away too readily, you’d be right to wonder about their business sense (and therefore, their ability effectively communicate your message), or their sense of self respect (in which case, you’re in for a painful handholding and validation process). The challenge with pro bono work in any event, though, is that it can never be too grand in scope. Otherwise, your designer would go out of business in no time flat, and that of course won’t serve you well. When it becomes clear that you’re ready for a substantial communications project – e.g. a branding campaign or comprehensive website design – you may have no choice but to create the budget.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: discounts of any kind, for any client, regardless of how noble their work is, are never good. Don’t ask designers for discounts, and don’t trust the ones who offer them unbidden. They end up harming both parties. Discounts devalue the work. They’re born of fear, desperation, self-hatred, and shortsightedness. Let’s say you’ve just landed the promotion of your life and head out to order a custom-built Aston Martin. You may barter and negotiate to some degree, but you’d never ask the dealer for a discount. Likewise, you’d think something was wrong if the salesman offered to take 15% off the price just because he really wanted to see you drive off in a brand-new DB9. Youd wonder if the salesman is desperate, if their pricing structure is built on shaky ground, or worse: maybe there's something wrong with the car.

Many of my colleagues give their work away too readily, and everyone involved suffers as a result. Good creative work never flows from a place of fear. And clients have a right to demand more self respect from their strategic partners.

If a designer explores budgetary questions with you and is satisfied that you’re a candidate for pro bono work, you should still know exactly what you’re getting. At Metagramme, when we take on the occasional free project, we make sure to communicate the monetary value of the work. We set boundaries, which protect and empower both parties. And we still use contracts, even if there’s no compensation besides gratitude. In other words, it’s business as usual, sans dollars. We don’t barter on the grounds of “extra creative freedom” – because it’s your audience we’re supposed to serve, not our own egos. And between our regular client work and personal side projects, we’re already creatively fulfilled.

Some NPOs have adequate, even substantial budgets for creative services. Metagramme has been blessed to work with some of these clients. Many, however, have insufficient or nonexistent budgets for creative work. I can’t tell you how many art and cultural nonprofits we’ve met over the years, who rely exclusively on inexpensive entry-level designers or pro bono work from those with more experience. What I’d like to know is why? Why must it almost always be this way? I realize that nonprofits by definition must arrive at a zero balance each year. If there are any profits left after all operational expenses have been paid, they go right back into your business or community. But why not get creative and make the budget required for creative services? My hypothesis is that at least one of three problems may be in play when nonprofits lack the resources for this work.

In the first scenario, the NPO is operating from fear. They’re afraid to write grant applications, host fundraisers, or find other creative ways to build a marketing budget, even if they engage in fundraising for other things. They may see the value in paying for branding and design work, but they do not have because they do not ask. And they do not ask because they’re afraid of imposing, or of the appearance of vanity (“You want how much money to design a bunch of visual stuff? Why not spend that money on your community or an addition to your museum?” Etc.).

Some nonprofit professionals are intrepid entrepreneurs who create abundance everywhere they go. They’re unafraid to ask for what they want, and have balanced relationships with money. They recognize it as inherently good, yet understand that it can be abused like anything else. But I’ve noticed that many others who are drawn to the nonprofit world are rather shy, and think of money as a necessary evil. They mistrust wealth. They believe on some level that there’s something wrong in making a lot of money. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen this in churches within my own Christian community.

In the second scenario, some nonprofits who lack marketing budgets just don’t see the value. Creative services might seem like an expense that doesn’t deliver any measurable ROI (this is of course not always true, but we’ll tackle ROI on creative services another time). It may seem vain or superfluous when there are so many other activities to pursue. This is shockingly common and sadly ironic among arts institutions. One would think that a deep appreciation for the transformative power of good communication strategy, content and design would be intuitively understood by the curators of the world. I believe fundamental misunderstandings about what design can do, and the differences and similarities between art and design, underlie this particular scenario.

In the third scenario, we find nonprofits who see the value. Maybe you work for one of these outfits, and have held fundraising campaigns, reached out to key donors, and/or have written grant applications to build creative service budgets. Maybe you’ve tried once or twice or even many times, but the results have just not materialized. We’ll talk more about this in a bit.

We don’t barter on the grounds of “extra creative freedom” – because it’s your audience we’re supposed to serve, not our own egos.

It seems to me that my fellow creative entrepreneurs bear a lot of blame for clients who don’t see the value in paying high fees for our services. Some of us are not good at showing clients the value, because we lack confidence or don’t even see the value we can offer. Some of us are not coming from a place of true service, but rather are concerned with what we can get from clients. We make it all about ourselves. When that’s the case, clients don’t trust us, and rightfully so. Either way, the onus for showing people the tremendous impact of good design met with good strategy rests squarely on our shoulders.

But sometimes people simply do not see the value, even when we make a compelling case and are coming from a place of love, genuine desire to serve, and confidence in our expertise. This happens to me from time to time. It’s okay. I simply move on and find someone else who’s ready to invest in the success of their brand.

Back to budgets: the money required to pay for branding and design has to come from somewhere. I propose that creative professionals start helping our nonprofit clients create these budgets. We make things for other people and ourselves on a regular basis. Why not use our creative muscle in helping clients create money? A competent designer should be able to speak in compelling language about the value of their work. A great designer can connect it in accessible terms to the world your audience lives in. Nonprofits of the world: My suggestion is to find an eloquent brand designer who speaks well about their work, who believes in your vision. Pair them with an experienced grant writer. And collaborate with them to write a powerful grant application.

I can’t speak for other creative firms, but I’d gladly donate my time and words to such an endeavor – assuming I’m aligned with your mission. It’s a risk, but the rewards could be profound. You could create a marketing budget that’s appropriate to your dreams. You could pay top dollar for top-quality work because your business – and more important your audience – deserves it. You could be the pride of your cultural niche. More people will see who you are, know why you exist, and your impact on the world could become exponentially greater.

I believe that everyone in the world who receives money – whether an individual, for-profit, or nonprofit organization – only receives that money because they create it. They ask for it. They are proactive, rather than reactive. The hell with this bad economy. I’m no economist, but I’ve seen again and again that there’s plenty of money in the world for anyone who is determined to find it. Ask, and you shall be turned down. Ask again and again, and you shall eventually receive. As the renowned business coach Steve Chandler says, yes lives in the land of no. Release your fear of hearing no. It’s only a word, it’s just information, and it doesn’t need to define your personal or organizational value. Live in the land of no. Set up shop there. Make audacious requests, and watch your hopes and dreams become reality. If any of this resonates with you, and if you think your goals might be aligned with ours at Metagramme, then give us a call.

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