Justin Hanson
4 min
Design culture table

How a Design Culture Can Grow Your Nonprofit’s Impact

This is a guest post by Justin Hanson, a product designer at Classy.org. Here, he shares how any nonprofit can solve problems through a strong design culture.


When you look at nonprofits like charity: water or 1to1 Movement, it’s easy to see that they know what their donors want and how to connect with them through emotionally charged copy, imagery, and colors. Successful, effective brands like these have something in common: a strong design culture.

A design culture is not just about making things pretty. It’s about solving problems by adopting the perspective of your supporters, and thus creating amazing experiences for the people who come in contact with your brand. These experiences can then translate into stronger brand affinity, deeper relationships, and greater levels of support.

While some may associate “design thinking” solely with the tech industry, nonprofits have a special opportunity to lead the pack when it comes to designing experiences that resonate with people on a deep level. Your organization is resourceful, powered by an emotionally charged mission, and full of problem solvers. Now it’s time to step up to the next level by building a strong design culture that engages your donors at every touch point. Here’s how.

Step 1: Engrain Design Into Your Team’s DNA

Brands with great design cultures realize that everything they do impacts a real human being. Everyone on the team starts to view their projects through the lens of the people interacting with the product or experience. If your entire staff is able to empathize with your community and take on their perspective, every experience your supporters have with your organization will feel like it was designed specifically for them.

A fun way to get your team thinking this way  is to have everyone take five minutes at the beginning of every project to “become someone else,” feel what they feel, and ask their questions. Five minutes can eventually turn into 30 minutes, which, over time, will become second nature.

This type of exercise forces you to think about the consequences of your decisions, and it reminds you that you’re doing something to help a real human being who may have a completely different perspective from you.

Step 2: Know Your Supporters Better Than They Know Themselves

Every week, initiate at least one non-transactional relationship or interaction with someone in your community, and work on three other existing relationships. “Non-transactional” means you should actually get to know them and let them get to know you.

By investing into these relationships, you can build a network of people you can count on for anything. These could be the first people you ask to read the first draft of your next message or book, or connect you to someone who can help grow your movement.

Be vulnerable and open, and ask questions that help you understand their motivations. Examples include:

  • What keeps you up at night?
  • What drives you to donate your hard-earned money to this mission?
  • What was the last thing that got you excited enough to jump up and down?

There are so many ways to chat with people today: phone, text, email, Skype, Slack, Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Snapchat…the list goes on, but don’t forget about meeting people face-to-face. Switch up the way you reach out, and push yourself through any uncomfortable feelings and grow.

Don’t forget to take notes when chatting with someone from your community. Their insights will help you find patterns and ways to improve your communication and serve them better.

Step 3: Constantly Improve Your Communication

Great experiences happen because of great communication. Communication can be verbal, written, or visual.

The people behind the awesome brands you know and love likely didn’t get their photos or words right the first time. It takes an iterative process to create experiences that make people feel good and motivate them to take action. Try out different ways to communicate a specific message to your audience, and see what they respond to.

In this process, it’s important to test any  assumptions and analyze their performance. You can do this on a tiny scale or a huge one.

For instance, let’s say you found out that people are leaving your website after visiting one page, failing to take any action. Since you’re already thinking like a designer, you might be able to guess what’s causing this problem and how you can solve it.

Maybe you think people are dropping off because the quality of your photos is really poor, or the page layout makes it difficult to identify the primary call to action.

Change one of these elements and get it in front of people to see if their experience improves. Don’t try to sell them on the changes you made. In fact, don’t even tell them the changes you made. Just sit back and observe.

If they start taking the desired action, that’s awesome. If they don’t, revert to your original version and test a different change. Rinse and repeat.

This iterative process can be used on all kinds of problems. It’s how the colonel made such a ridiculously popular chicken wing. It’s how Santos-Dumont flew his plane for the first time.

Anyone Can Build a Design Culture

You don’t need to spend a ton of money to build a design-centered culture. Improving your organization’s impact through design is as simple as understanding the supporters you serve and making small, iterative changes that get them to take the action you want them to. As a quick review, get the ball rolling with these three simple steps:

  1. Step into someone else’s shoes for five minutes before every project. Work your way up to 30 minutes, then to one hour.
  2. Build lasting relationships and get to know what motivates your supporters better than they know.
  3. Improve your written, verbal, and visual communication by making small changes and testing to see if they improve the experience.

Do these steps seem easy enough to implement? Do you have other successes and challenges with design thinking? Let us know in the comments below.

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