How to optimize your efforts and extend your reach through the power of design

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For charitable organizations, an investment in design can mean the difference between maintaining the status quo and achieving new levels of influence through wide-reaching professional platforms.

When working with limited budgets and multiple stakeholders, it can be easy for things like branding, website design and awareness campaigns to get pushed to the bottom of a charitable organization’s priority list. Programming and operational needs will always come first, which often leaves little left over for the type of work that designers have to offer. But an investment in design is about more than just aesthetics.

The Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD) invited design professionals and their nonprofit clients to weigh in on how investing in design can significantly increase what a charitable organization is able to achieve.

1. More than designed materials, a design team offers strategic insight on how to communicate your message.

“Our nonprofit clients look to us as their communications guides,” says Ben Hagon RGD, Creative Director at Intent. “Not only are they asking us to produce specific, tangible designed materials; they look to us for advice and guidance on how to achieve their strategic, operational, and project objectives.”

Claire Dawson RGD and Fidel Pena RGD, Owners of Underline Studio offer a full range of expertise to their nonprofit clients. “First, we can help them to clearly communicate what may be a complicated and/or heavy message. Second, we also help them imagine a better outcome for their problem. And finally, we can help them by making a real world issue visually captivating, helping people identify with it, or command their attention. Our role normally expands when working on these type of projects, and that is something we embrace, because we’re passionate about the content.”

Glenda Rissman RGD, Co-Founder of q30 design points out that “Nonprofits are often dealing with complicated and connected issues that are difficult to distill visually. When an organization prioritizes design, they’re showing a commitment to communicating with their audiences.”

It’s true that ‘products’ of nonprofit organizations are often less tangible than other industries, dealing with social issues, education, research, or furthering a specific vision or mandate, which can make their messages more challenging to communicate. “Designers know which media to use and how to channel a message through various outlets, from print to digital to social media,” says Principal Creative Director at Entro, Udo Schliemann RGD. “We can help organizations create and support an image that builds trust and strength to stand out in the market.”

James Wilson RGD, Founder of Overdrive, also emphasizes the ability of designers to distill complex messages into impactful content. “By letting content drive design, we can make the messages more memorable and drive home the organization’s specific needs and calls to action.”

Jay Wall RGD of RallyRally adds, “A good design team can help an organization to establish credibility, articulate its mission, build trust with its stakeholders, attract funders and donors, grow its movement of supporters and communicate its impact.”

2. Great design can put important causes on a level playing field with bigger-budget corporate messaging.

Nonprofit organizations have important stories to tell, but often get overshadowed by corporate communications from companies that can afford to pay big money for access to larger platforms. With the help of a strategic design partner, even a smaller-budget campaign can achieve a significant impact.

“Designers are programmed to be resourceful, which is particularly valuable when working with nonprofits,” explains Wendy Gray RGD, Gravity Inc. “We question what can be done differently, how resources can be used more efficiently and what can be done to enhance an understanding that the organization is spending its dollars wisely on its marketing and communications.”

In today’s culture where visual communication is often the main vehicle for reaching target audiences, a strong design can mean the difference between being heard and getting lost in the clutter. “To communicate messages clearly, design can help an organization communicate in the right voice and at the right volume,” say Claire and Fidel. “This is needed more than ever today to draw attention to crucial issues.”

Julian Brown RGD, Founder of On the CHASE! points out that the playing field is already tilted in favor of organizations with larger budgets and deeper resources, but good design can help even things out. “Helping any client is all about trying to tell their unique story as simply as possible,” he says. “Often with non-profits and charities their stories are actually much more meaningful and engaging than traditional corporations, and we can help make sure those stories are being heard.”

“Working with design professionals has given our organization legitimacy, not only among our funders but among the youth we're working to engage,” says Caro Loutfi, Director of Apathy is Boring. “Young people respond to effective advertising, creative campaigns and the like. If we spent as much time creatively communicating with Canadians about the importance of engaging in our democracy as we do about the latest fashion trends, our communities would be healthier and function better.”

3. While the team of a charitable organization focuses on day-to-day problem solving, a design team can offer big picture perspective.

Every organization has their in-house strengths, but working with a design team means having access to experts in strategic problem solving and high level thinking. “In certain situations it can be difficult for clients to identify the big picture problems when they are so busy with their day jobs,” says Ben. “Designers and creatives are good at ‘seeing the wood for the trees’ because they are not in the forest. They have dealt with a range of challenges for their various clients and can offer relevant insight.”

To craft effective messaging, designers offer the necessary strategic insight and planning. “We know how to optimize the persuasive potential of communication materials, and create a blueprint for future innovation,” says Breck Campbell RGD, Principal of Breck Campbell Design. “Design thinking can help an organization go beyond the obvious, traditional solutions.”

Udo emphasizes that, when faced with the challenge of how to tell their story in a compelling yet simple way, nonprofit staff are often too close to the ‘nitty-gritty’ details to be able to step back and find the right narrative. “A designer is trained to start his or her work with research and analysis, to clarify and humanize the core message through the way the story is told,” he explains. “Strong design can help educate and guide the viewer to a deeper understanding and a positive connection to the organization’s values.”

Wendy points to objectivity as a key benefit that designers can offer to charitable organizations. “Designers help clients view their message through the eyes of their target audience, whether that includes board members, staff, volunteers, donors, researchers, sister agencies, governments, or simply the general public.”

Beyond a fresh perspective, designers also have a unique ability to dig deeper into the big questions and get to the heart of an idea. “As designers we bring to the table our ability to continuously question society, systems and our environment,” says Vanessa Eckstein RGD of blok design. “This is the essence of any project: to seek better questions that are actually relevant to our current times, allowing us to reach places creatively that we could have never foreseen. How we frame the problem is as important as the solution.”

As Jay points out, this ‘big picture’ approach yields significant payoff in the form of “improved brand recognition, greater visibility, improved trust and credibility, more meaningful engagement and more funding to sustain your programs. Ultimately, good design can help to amplify your organization’s efforts so that you can continue to advance your important work.”

4. The bottom line: Effective design delivers results.

In addition to a clear message and a professional look, great design can deliver long term results to organizations and affect how they move forward toward larger goals. “Strong design can make an organization more engaging and more desirable to the community they’re trying to reach, but also to funding bodies and levels of government,” says Julian.

All nonprofit organizations face the same challenge: how to get noticed, stand out, gain trust and tell their story to a wider audience. “Without design and communication specialists, it can be very difficult to gain public confidence to buy into the program, especially potential donors,” Udo says. “The right image, design and message are key components to driving success. People love to be involved and associated with vibrant, modern and active organizations.”

Rather than seeing design as a ‘nice to have’ element when there is budget left over, a strategic nonprofit organization recognizes design as an investment. “Nonprofit leaders get designers involved early on in their projects, allocate appropriate funds for a comprehensive design process, and they see the benefits in the results,” says Jay. “It can be tricky to quantify return on investment (ROI) when dealing with social outcomes, but there are other metrics that point to the value of design, just as we see in the corporate world.”

From the client’s perspective, prioritizing effective communications has proved to be an important step for increasing reach and getting the attention of new supporters. For Apathy is Boring, “working with design teams has directly impacted our programming through increased rates in our recruitment of program participants and growth in the engagement and shareability of our educational resources,” says Caro.

“I can talk to a donor directly and have conversations about the value of what we do, but designed assets are usually people’s first impression of the organization,” says Charlotte Empey, Principal at FYI Media and contributor on the Sistering branding project. “The website, the one-pager they pick up, the bookmark someone handed them at an event - for those assets to work, the copy and the design have to be evocative, and the packaging needs to grab people’s attention and communicate all of the important information.”

"We have found that engaging design teams early on in the process, and consistently throughout the project lifecycle is a key success factor in creating a development that is reflective of its community," says Jane Hopgood, Director, Fund Development at Artscape. "Working with a design firm helps Artscape to tell the story of each hub in a way that engages our donors, our funders and the communities in which we operate."

As Ben points out, “Design works. It’s been proven time and again to help organizations achieve their goals and connect with their audiences. By leveraging creative problem solvers and design thinkers, nonprofits can achieve results they never thought possible. The contribution of a good designer can make real change to the way an organization is perceived, how they operate and how much their staff care about where they work.”

Are you part of a nonprofit organization and interested in connecting with the design community? Be part of an RGD Designathon in 2019. The first one takes place on Saturday, February 9 with locations across Canada. Submit your application here by January 11. If your project is selected, a team of emerging designers led by a senior creative professional will provide pro bono design services to complete your design project project and support your organization’s communication needs. Details at To search for a professional designer to help your organization now, visit RGD's searchable online Directory of professionally-certified designers at

Project Examples

Breck Campbell Design: Eco Folk poster design

Eco Folk is a fundraising and awareness event put on by the Thames Talbot Land Trust. They needed an effective method for delivering details of an experimental event - a concert with the goal of raising awareness and funds for acquiring and preserving essential and sensitive lands in SouthWestern Ontario. Their existing materials and positioning involved an overwhelming amount of data which failed to make an emotional connection with their audience. The design put images of the endangered species front and centre and introduced an intricate level of discoverability to make it more memorable and impactful to readers. The event is now in its fourth year and growing, with a refreshed version of the poster designed each year to highlight the current priorities and area of focus.

Entro: Artscape branding

Entro has designed identities and environmental branding to create holistic experiences for multiple Artscape locations in Toronto, where they have carved out unique brands and perspectives for each cultural hub. These contributions have launched a stellar career for Artscape, which is now known internationally as a leader in the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods by fostering arts and artists through affordable live work environments.

Intent: She Deserves It campaign for Women’s Crisis Services

For this capital campaign with hugely challenging objectives, Intent worked closely with the CEO of the organization to craft messaging and creative that was as effective as it was compelling. The result was a campaign that far eclipsed the fundraising goal and built a new shelter for abused women in Cambridge, ON. Click here for details.

Overdrive: Sistering website and branding

Sistering has been a major player in supporting women at risk, yet the website made the organization appear less credible and dated. By launching a new modern site, Sistering was able to better compete for donor dollars. Overdrive was able to streamline the content, remove redundancies and clarify the aesthetic so that the website not only made sense internally, but communicated the goals, mission and character of Sistering to the larger audience. Charlotte Empey: “We saw an increase in profit, more people calling in to come for tours, to volunteer, to donate and contribute. More people were interested in learning about what we do, in large measure because of the new website design. The new website reflects the personality of the organization and brought the branding into the future.”

q30 design: Open Studio brand identity

When Open Studio opened in 1970, their vision was to create a space where anyone could walk in and have access to printmaking equipment and instruction. Today, Open Studio is home to over 150 artists and studio users, three distinct galleries, a print shop, and a wide range of programming. The new Open Studio identity represents the synthesis of traditional print techniques and contemporary expression — the kind of experiences Open Studio offers. q30 gave them a logo as well as ownable colours and templates for them to work autonomously so that they could be independent and creative with its usage. Their new identity even inspired Open Studio to revitalize their physical space to reflect this new look and feel and attract more artists, supporters and buyers of their office prints.

RallyRally: International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) rebrand

IISD is an independent think tank that promotes human development and environmental sustainability, championing policy solutions to challenges such as climate resilience, gender equity, and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. As IISD renewed its strategic direction, RallyRally rebranded the organization to better align their communications with their mission. The team began by auditing IISD’s existing branded materials and surveying key staff and board members to understand the challenges and opportunities of communicating what IISD does. A new visual identity was designed based on a globe, reflecting IISD’s commitment to advancing a bold global shift toward sustainability. It weaves together stories, data, and immersive photography to highlight examples of human resilience. IISD was equipped with this robust visual identity system, publication templates and brand guidelines capable of supporting their work in nearly 100 countries. The new visual identity and subsequent materials have enhanced IISD’s international profile and helped them to more effectively communicate their impact in improving livelihoods around the world. See case study here.

Underline Studio: Pro-Busqueda Newspaper

Underline created and published a self-initiated newspaper about the history of war tragedies in El Salvador, which was used to raise awareness and funds for a nonprofit organization that searches for children stolen during the civil war. The client’s expectations were exceeded as the project raised over $7,000 in addition to raising awareness about their work in a one-month Kickstarter campaign.


Julian Brown RGD, On The Chase!

On The Chase! conceives and creates on-screen motion graphics: titles, infographics, logos, animated sequences, trailers, ads, promos, event visuals, you name it. OTC! strives to work with the most progressive clients & studios: ambitious people who value the design process and what can be done with it. Some past clients & collaborators include major corporations (Shoppers Drug Mart), consultants (Deloitte), nonprofits (WWF), game developers (Ubisoft), filmmakers & festivals (Hot Docs), health-care institutions (Humber River Hospital) and startups (Expertfile).

Breck Campbell RGD, Breck Campbell Design

Breck Campbell designs bespoke Logos, stand-out visual identities and builds exceptional brands, bringing clients to the forefront of their field by positioning them ahead of their competition.

Vanessa Eckstein RGD, blok design

blok collaborates with thinkers and creators from all over the world, taking on projects that blend cultural awareness, a love of art and a belief in humanity to advance society and business alike. The team works across media and disciplines, including identity, product, packaging, editorial, websites, digital experiences, exhibitions and installations as well as strategy with a ferocious passion.

Wendy Gray RGD, Gravity Inc.

Big picture thinking, strategic solutions, outstanding design, happy clients, discovering young talent, the privilege of teaching, mentoring, judging and playing an active role as an RGD board member are but some of the things that continue to motivate Wendy after 20 years of building Gravity into the full-service, multidisciplinary firm it is today.

Ben Hagon RGD, Creative Director, Intent

Intent is a design communications agency that works with organizations that actively contribute to social good. We are passionate about creating positive change for our clients and the communities they serve. It is our collective mission to help improve the lives of people through accessible, creative, and informative communications and design. We have created award-winning design and achieved positive results for hospitals, libraries, universities, public health groups, international development agencies, and cancer care groups.

Fidel Pena RGD and Claire Dawson RGD, Co-Founders and Creative Directors, Underline Studio

Our Toronto-based studio takes on a wide range of projects in brand, corporate and marketing communications. We’re global in outlook and tastes, blending classic and emerging design thinking in work across the private and public sectors. We are committed to meaningful collaboration, and we seek out clients who, like us, have a genuine passion for what they do. We stand behind the belief that investing in sophisticated design pays tangible dividends.

Glenda Rissman RGD, Principal, q30 design inc.

Glenda is the account manager, art director and the partner in charge of operations at q30 design inc. She is able to interpret “that certain something” that makes clients unique, so that the team of designers can build an ownable visual language. She always want clients to know that q30 has their back and they are getting the best value.

Udo Schliemann RGD, Principal Creative Director, Entro

Udo’s unique approach to design prob­lems, fostered by the mentor­ship of renowned German artist Anton Stankowski, combines artis­tic and poetic sensi­bil­i­ties to create power­ful designs, which elevate the every­day expe­ri­ence. Formerly, Udo acted as Studio Manager for Stankowski+Duschek, one of Germany’s lead­ing design firms. At Entro, Udo has directed the design and devel­op­ment of signage and wayfind­ing programs for a long list of national and inter­na­tional clients and devel­oped a number of corpo­rate iden­tity programs.

Jay Wall RGD, Principal and Creative Director, RallyRally

RallyRally is a design studio dedicated to social change. We amplify the efforts of forward-thinking organizations through creative strategy and graphic design. Based in Toronto, we work across Canada, the United States and around the world to advance solutions to challenging issues ranging from climate action to human rights advocacy to equitable urban planning. We believe that thoughtful design and communications can play an important role in creating a more just society. We rally around these causes with visionary changemakers and their communities. For further reading, check out this interview on How RallyRally Makes ‘Design for Social Change’ Its Top (and Only) Priority.

James Wilson RGD, Founder, Principal, Creative Director, Overdrive

Overdrive (Design Limited) is a full service brand, communications and interactive agency located in Toronto, Canada. We will work with any organization large or small that believes in the value of good design, the impact it can make on their businesses and that wishes to work in an environment of mutual respect, learning, intelligence and passion.

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