"The Noble Designer"
As a nonprofit designer, I often feel as though I design on an island. Surrounded by a sea of for-profit creators, I watch as their branding projects and high-value accounts push their careers forward, delivering the same type of content over and over again in an echo-chamber of cubicles. Most of those designers, working in a world of decks and budget line items at least 3x higher than my annual pay, are ignorant to the amazing work being done on little islands like mine where resources and admiration are scarce, but skill is high and the hustle is real.
At any given networking event, most of my fellow designers are surprised to hear that nonprofit designers exist and almost all immediately recall all of the awful design that comes out of my sector and undoubtedly assume the worst of my abilities. I guess I can't really blame them—we can make some really terrible things on Microsoft Word when budgets don't allow for designers, staff is overworked, and marketing has a nonexistent budget.
While I awkwardly hold my beer and nod, my conversation-mates discuss the struggles of challenging clients or long hours. I guarantee that if the conversation moves to job satisfaction and I bring up the struggle of low pay and no budget in the nonprofit sector, some well-meaning designer will tilt their head and smile saying, "But it's so admirable and must make you feel so good!" Bless. As if working at a mission-based organization should naturally mean sacrificing financial stability and professional development. Last time I checked, I couldn't pay my rent or feed my cats with "warm and fuzzy feelings." The conversation always quickly returns to topics of so-and-so's new identity, the restructuring at such-and-such agency, or my personal favorite: the pro bono client.
So here's the thing. As someone who has built her career in the nonprofit sector, I think it's important to recognize that far too often, nonprofits are seen as "projects" and their causes as "hobbies" for for-profit designers—the organization that needs to be saved by the benevolent agency. And here's where I struggle. Because at the end of the day, nonprofits would love to be rebranded and given tools to enhance their work as they engage with communities. Most cannot afford to do this on their own and so pro bono work really does make a positive impact on those organizations. But at the same time, the naivety of agencies to think that all they need to do is throw together a brand to help grow an organization just perpetuates the idea that nonprofit work is somehow less-than and a problem that can easily be fixed by"real professionals." It's giving a person a fishing rod but never teaching them how to fish, nor taking time to understand the water.
Picture it: A couple months of pro bono work on a campaign by a highly-regarded agency and all of a sudden an organization has a beautiful new identity but none of the resources to wield it. Meanwhile, the agency is gone, off to gain all the accolades and feel-good rewards that come with the project's completion. Back to working on their big-client work, the agency posts about their new nonprofit brand on Instagram and talks about the great work the organization does in the comments, maybe giving it a spotlight on their website for a few years to prove they're invested in the community. On the other side of town, a newly rebranded nonprofit is struggling to navigate design files and find someone on staff who can learn to use a single Adobe application. The excitement wears off when teams sit down and realize the scope of rebranding and acknowledge that they don't have the monetary or organizational capacity to revamp all their stationary, the website and digital communications, social media presence, and their marketing and recruitment collateral. Instead, a logo gets dropped in and inadvertently stretched at the top of a Word document and the world moves on because there are grant deadlines, recruitment events, coalition meetings, and clients that are (and should be) priorities.
Now this is not to say that all agencies work this way. Some do great work and truly try to make sure their "feel good" branding makes a measurable impact on the organization they rebrand. For example, the local agency who designed my organization's identity was heavily invested in us for years—helping to implement the brand, assisting with large projects, and ultimately helping to hire me as a full-time in-house designer. They did amazing work and truly put their money and hearts into their relationship with us.
It should also be noted that nonprofits carry their fair share of the blame in situations of poor brand execution. Everyone wants "to look pretty" but agreeing to and diving headfirst into a rebrand, free or otherwise, is an organization-wide undertaking. Nonprofits, with their limited staffing and ear-marked spending limitations clamor for free resources that could give them an edge in a competitive funding market, but rarely do they take time to think about what that execution would look like at their current capacity. With no one willing to fund overhead costs and a culture of employees as martyrs for their cause, nonprofits often end up with little to no budget for marketing, high turn-over, and a myopic view of their world. To be fair, when you're tasked with dealing with huge, critical issues deeply impacting the lives of your neighbors, design can feel frivolous. As a designer, I get frustrated with the lack of understanding around the importance of a strong and vibrant brand, but I get it. It's hard to look at new long-term investments and take risks with something like design and marketing when you are just trying to make it to the next day, the next event, the end of your fiscal year. Nonprofit professionals spend their days constantly trying to validate their work, explaining to funders why systemic and institutionalized social issues create challenging environments to enact change, and then go back to the office where they are counting the number of copies coming out of departments because last month they went over their paper budget. While all nonprofits want to look good, very few actually have the capacity to handle a rebranding without additional support or structural changes. Unfortunately, most do not realize that until it's too late.
And yet even when nonprofits understand the importance of design, have a beautiful brand, and hire a designer, something is still off.
I've recently come to realize that I often see my nonprofit work as somehow less important, less artistic or creative, and less validated than my for-profit counterparts. Yes I know that's not true, yes I know I am a great designer who does important and creative work, and yes I know that for-profit work does not automatically mean validated work. That said, in a field often defined by artistic endeavors tied to advertising and making a profit, where does work like mine fit? Where does my resume fall in the stack of agency, corporate in-house, and freelance designers? If conversations with other creatives tell me anything, it's that it unintentionally falls pretty far to the bottom simply because nonprofit work has never truly been valued, it has only been idealized.
In the working world, a great divide exists between those who work for profit and those who do not. Networking events, professional development opportunities, even the language we use to describe what we do day-to-day is all separate and often very different. In many ways those differences, while often necessary, can feel a bit condescending. When you're not spending the money, making the money, or showing off flashy projects, you're not living the American capitalist dream correctly. Instead of being seen as unusually innovative, compassionate, insanely hard-working, and able to navigate complex networks, we are "noble" and "admirable" and what we do must just make us "feel so good." Nonprofit employees are not allowed to be professionals, we are simply the mothers of society. And we all know how much society values women's work.
So how does the design community ensure that all designers are valued, given the same access to pricey professional development opportunities, and have their work celebrated in the same way as their for-profit counterparts? Nonprofit creatives are undoubtedly starved for this—I know I am. Unless it is a very large organization, most nonprofits do not have the ability to fully support the professional development of a designer and there is hardly enough of us out there to have our own network. At the end of the day, we end up designing on an island within our own organizations—working with very few people with whom we can talk about design, and an organizational structure that lends itself more to quick and constant output and less to the creative ideation process of design. In fact, conversations with other designers like myself highlights a pretty standard arrangement: hardly anyone exclusively designs and rarely are we seen as designers within our organizations. Instead we are communication professionals, we manage social media and websites, we write copy, we write reports because one time we were good at writing copy, we single-handedly pitch and manage marketing and recruitment strategy, we somehow find ourselves planning annual fundraisers and sitting in data and assessment meetings, we are ghost writers and right-hand gals to our Executive Directors, we are photographers, we art direct, we put together PowerPoints, we lead teams of rag tag job descriptions, we put out 50 fires every day before lunch. We do it all and we do it all without proper support from either our organizations or the greater design community.
Job postings ask for agency experience and designers brag about leading teams on branding projects, but what about designers that are making everything happen every day—project managing, writing copy, working with printers, designing mass amounts of communication on shortened timelines and even shorter budgets. How can the design community celebrate our hustle, our designs, and our selves? I don't want to be seen as "noble" and I don't want my work to be "admirable." Neither of those make me a good designer—my skills do.
It's a complicated thing, designing on an island.