I had the pleasure of attending an AIGA panel discussion on design return-on-investment (ROI) for nonprofits at the offices of the Human Rights Campaign in DC this week. AIGA pulled together a terrific panel to discuss this complex issue. Much of the discussion defaulted to nonprofit design projects (after all, we are designers), yet there were still a few pearls of wisdom in the discussion.
While many nonprofits equate ROI with donations, at least two of the panelists work for advocacy organizations, and they mentioned that design is core to their brand and everything they do. ROI is about how they are changing policy, not raising donations. This design team faced a dichotomy of pleasing policy experts while at the same time, their bosses were asking them to make the creative “cool.” In advocacy nonprofits, ROI can be measured by whether they become and remain the go-to authority on a particular issue. This can be accomplished through both outreach and education, and can be measured, among other ways, by media impressions. Different kinds of design products can increase engagement (and earned media), such as t-shirts, booth design and bus-sides for road tours, and magazines that get their message out. One nonprofit talked about how their annual report was strategically designed to have usefulness that extended beyond sending them to major donors.
The nonprofits at the table conveyed their frustration with nicely-designed materials that weren’t strategic; and designers on the panel talked about the opportunity costs of not investing in design (and the hit your credibility and reputation can take if you present your cause poorly).
An advocacy nonprofit talked about how their index report became a useful tool in igniting action. In this case, more than double the number of cities scored a perfect 100 points in the Municipal Equality Index (MEI) this year. And even though they had also rated more cities in the current year, cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, Columbus, and Jersey City earned perfect scores, because they took direct action after reviewing their scores in this report. While great design wasn’t the only factor in the success of this report in producing measurable results, it helped this nonprofit’s first impression be a lasting impression, at least for these five cities.
There was a lot of discussion around design thinking. Design thinking is clearly identifying the problem to be solved, collaborating on a solution, and writing a design brief before any design implementation begins. Great design products result from design thinking and early collaboration. When designers help nonprofits identify and solve the right problems — when they change an idea, using design — this has the power to improve the bottom line of a nonprofit.
ROI on a design product can include measurements such as:
- How easy is it to comprehend information? (especially complex information and statistics)
- Does it drive behavior? (volunteer, choose to care, register, donate, share, or learn more)
- Does it influence attitudes and change legislation? (change perceptions)
One topic that came up was how incredibly important it is for a client and a designer to build a relationship. Once there is trust, a design team has leverage to take risks, and clients feel safer in taking leaps of faith with their design partner, and this can produce design solutions that will have better returns on investment.
Finally, the panel talked about the difficulty of keeping communication materials on-brand. They suggested that nonprofits build out a brand book of common materials such as:
- An understandable logo guide with many “approved” versions of the logo
- An icon set
- Photos and imagery
- A PowerPoint template
- Word templates
More panel discussions are in the works, and I look forward to upcoming panel discussion on design ROI for nonprofits. If you are interested in sitting on a panel to discuss this, let me know and I’ll connect you with the organizers. Just fill out my form here and mention that you’d like to participate.