Why Fast, Cheap, and Easy Design Is Killing Your Nonprofit’s Brand

A logo doesn’t equal a brand, and nonprofits would be much better served trying to formulate a real strategy than trying to use graphics to hide a lack of true mission.

Technology is fueling a democratization of design, giving ordinary people the power to create with speed and ease. Among nonprofits, many feel that technology is leveling the playing field when it comes to expressing themselves and their brands.

Historically, marketing has been an expensive endeavor, and while sharing stories, promoting impact, and raising funds are all critical activities, nonprofits have been challenged to find adequate budgets to do these things effectively. Even when there was money to invest, there was also a third party waiting to scrutinize the spending. As a result, scores of causes had to hold out hope that pro-bono support from agencies, board members, or volunteers would save the day.

That was before the ubiquitous availability of creative technologies changed the game.

With a smartphone and a laptop, you can channel your inner Spielberg and produce epic videos. Professional themes built for WordPress make websites a snap, and a host of other do-it-yourself marketing tools can help you painlessly create everything from email templates to infographics.

Not a DIY kind of person? No worries. Just have someone else do it for you for pennies on the dollar. Today’s technology allows you to crowdsource all your marketing needs. At Fiverr.com, you can get virtually anything done for $5, like say QR codes built out of Legos. Meanwhile at 99designs.com, you can start a designer battle royal and walk away with a "winning logo" or other creative production for a few hundred bucks.

Technology is indeed empowering those with mini budgets to create mightily. On the flip side, it’s also producing a surplus of uninspired websites, flatlining brands, and cookie cutter approaches to communications. While moving fast and free, nonprofits are trading originality, vision, and identity for templates, plug-ins, and off the shelf solutions.

It’s not a question of whether you can get quality design from cheap (or free) apps and services. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. The real question is a fundamental one: Do you have a strategy for what you’re creating?

For 8 out of 10 nonprofits, the answer to that question is no. Only 20% of causes report having a formal, written marketing strategy. Meanwhile, 100% have logos, websites, and donor communication vehicles. That’s less than ideal when you consider:

  • A logo does not equal a brand.
  • A website does not equal a digital presence.
  • A Facebook page does not equal an engaged community.
  • A press release does not equal press coverage.

Strategy leads to things like a distinctive and authentic point of view, the creation of compelling content, and the development of engaged communities. Without strategy, you are just making stuff that may or may not "look pretty."

But here’s why this strategic deficit is really such a big deal. At a time when nonprofits need to stand out more than ever, they are at best blending in and at worst becoming invisible. At a time when they need their voice the most, they are saying absolutely nothing.

There are more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States. That total has doubled in less than two decades. Meanwhile a $500 billion bonanza of impact investing is helping pump out a steady flow of social enterprises. As if the space wasn’t crowded enough, many big corporations are finding a higher calling and becoming purpose-driven enterprises themselves, some for real, others for show.

All this good doing is a good thing. But how will your cause stand out in this overpopulated and chaotic environment? Technology can’t help you. Fast, cheap, and easy can’t help you. Strategy can. Strategy provides your organization with a 3-D effect: direction, discernment, and differentiation.

  • Direction: It aims you squarely at your goals, and creates a path that guides you to success.
  • Discernment: It is a filter for your decision making. It helps you avoid distractions and inconsistencies. It helps you evaluate the various parts and pieces of your marketing efforts.
  • Differentiation: It is how you set yourself apart and stand out from the competition. It ensures you don’t look, sound, feel and act like everyone else.

Smart strategy is what truly levels the playing field. Strategy helps you be bigger than you are; to win fights you shouldn’t; to be surprising, refreshing, and inspirational. Strategy gives you an advantage over larger organizations. The big boy companies are more likely to deviate from their strategies. They are more likely to struggle through internal debates. They also can be slow to move, slow to adjust, and slow to adapt to changes in the environment. They can be fearful of innovation.

It’s great that technology provides creative ways to get creative done. After all, your nonprofit obviously doesn’t have a creative budget that compares with the likes of Nike or Nissan. But using these services without the guidance of a strategy is like cooking with no recipe and no culinary training. Unless you are preparing a feast for Joey Tribbiani (Custard, good. Jam, good. Meat, good!) the results are not going to be all that tasty.

If you’re a nonprofit, ask yourself these questions. Do you want to fit in, or do you want to stand out? Do you want to "look pretty" or do you want to be effective?

If you’re a foundation, an investor, a strategic donor, a corporate sponsor, or a board member supporting a cause, ask yourself these questions. Would a marketing strategy benefit the causes I support? If so, how do I help them develop one? What obstacles can I remove?

Strategy isn’t easy, or cheap. But it is well worth the investment. In the end, five bucks is a great price for a foot-long sub, or a rave review of a product or service. But what price is your organization paying if you are creating without a strategy to guide you? It’s hard to quantify, to be honest. But you could probably buy quite a few sandwiches.

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  • Jim Starr

    Heath: Some might think that all professional designers hate the "fast, cheap, and easy" just because it means projects, and money, out of their own pockets. But the best most regret what it represents: the empty calories inherent in eye candy that will eventually allow any brand to run out of gas. Thank you for this thoughtful discussion, and for packaging it for a segment that deserves better.

  • Jim Starr

    Heath: Some might think that all professional designers hate the "fast, cheap, and easy" just because it means projects, and money, out of their own pockets. But the best most regret what it represents: the empty calories inherent in eye candy that will eventually allow any brand to run out of gas. Thank you for this thoughtful discussion, and for packaging it for a business segment that deserves better.

  • Cristi

    Such a great piece, Heath. Thank you for shedding insight on this topic...fascinating and on point. 

  • Swampqueen

    How does a small, financially-strapped organization (doing great work!) go about doing this, then?

  • Good.Must.Grow. (Heath Shackle

    It's a great question. Here are a few thoughts, but also feel free to connect with us via twitter  and we'd be happy to talk about your specific situation. 

    1. Find a firm or consultant you trust and work with them to develop a joint funding proposal that can be delivered to a local foundation or segment of your donor base. Not all donors will have an appetite or appreciation for funding the creation of a marketing strategy, but some will. 

    2. Commit your leadership team and board to spending time developing a marketing strategy, and then have an outside party "check your work" and offer insight. It won't be the same as having a partner guide you through, but it will be helpful. 

    3. Start small. Have a one-day training session for your leadership, where you bring in an expert to talk about strategic marketing principles. Tackle one aspect, like getting your organization's story straight. Read up, network, compare notes with other causes. And get in the habit of asking a few key questions before you create anything, such as what you are trying to accomplish, who you're trying to reach, what it will take to engage them, how it ties back to your broader communication efforts and how you will know it worked. 

    Most organizations will take a limited budget and invest it all in doing versus thinking. That's probably the biggest mistake. The less money you have to invest in marketing, the smarter you have to be with it. 

  • Phil Communications

    Great article, i was just wondering where the stats you state are from?


  • Good.Must.Grow. (Heath Shackle

    Glad you enjoyed it! Happy to share sources. I don't think I can post links in the comments here, but DM an email address to me on Twitter if you want them. In short form, sources were the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the Monitor Institute, Nonprofit Communications Trends Report and an independent survey conducted by our organization. 

  • Good.Must.Grow. (Heath Shackle

    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! Here are sources for stats.

    1. Number of nonprofits: http://nccs.urban.org/


    2. Percentage of nonprofits with formal, written marketing plan. Stat from the study below shows approximately 25% with a plan. Separate research our firm conducted reported 20% with a formal, written strategy for marketing. http://nonprofitmarketingguide...

    3. Several estimates out there for impact investing. We sourced the report below: 


  • Dangerous Meredith

    Excellent article. I think much the same: not enough reflective and strategic thinking going on.

  • Rsolosky.com

    Most importantly, what this article points out is that STRATEGY trumps
    design - EVERY TIME! Beware of the "pretty picture people" that call
    themselves marketers. Take a holistic approach to your marketing by
    including it at a high level within your organization. Understand the
    need, develop effective actions, and measure outcomes. Then, communicate
    your value to key audiences through appropriate channels. That's how
    you build an effective brand!