How to Succeed as a Designer at a Nonprofit

Graphic designer.

Someone recently asked me what advice I’d give to Designers working at and for nonprofits. 

I gave some “big picture” advice – which I’m told was helpful – so I’m sharing it here with you…

Know that different design contexts have different design requirements

One of the things that happens at nonprofits is that they come up with a design approach and they apply that approach regardless of context

For instance, say one of the colors in your logo/brand is a beautiful light green.  In an Annual Report, you can use that green as the color for a headline or a small block of text to make the page more visually interesting.  But in direct mail you should never use a light color for text because it’s so hard to read for older donors, and in direct response fundraising readability is directly correlated with fundraising results

As a Designer, you’ll be more helpful to your organization (and your beneficiaries or cause) if your design is effective for each particular context than if your design is perfectly consistent across all the contexts you have to design for.  

You keep your organization’s design accessible for your donors

The person who wants you to fit a 550-word letter on one page does not know that the resulting “wall of text” won’t be read by anyone but their Mom.  The young person who wants the reply card form to be super-tiny does not know that a 75-year-old donor with a touch of arthritis will never be able to write their credit card number in a space that small. 

It is the Designer’s job to think about these things on behalf of your donors to make it easier for them to understand and support your organization.

And if you keep your organization’s work more accessible, your organization will raise more money.

Be a partner to the writer

The best design in the world cannot compensate for lousy copy.  So if the letter you’re asked to design doesn’t have a good offer, or takes too long to get to the point, or sounds like a Ph.D. dissertation, say something

Speaking as a copywriter, I’ve had hundreds of ideas that sounded great in my head but just didn’t work on the page.  The most helpful Designers told me so, and helped me see why.

Note to anyone working with a Designer: if you don’t treat the Designer as a partner, and give their feedback real consideration, you won’t get to work with that Designer for long.

Design for donors, not yourself

The most effective Designers always keep in mind that the primary audience for their design work has different preferences and needs than the Designer does.

This is hard to do. 

For instance, most Designers at nonprofits are at least 20 years younger than the core audience for their work: the average age of a donor in the U.S. is their late 60’s, and I’d guess that most Designers at nonprofits are younger than 40. 

For a Designer, this means that your donors are more likely to emotionally resonate with a different design approach than you are.  Real life example: most donors at most organizations are more likely to respond to a letter that looks like a telegram than they are to a letter that looks like the cool titles on a hot new Netflix show.

Design for your audience.

Be your own advocate & Ask questions

OK, this is two pieces of advice, but they are related.

The tough thing about working in the nonprofit world, especially at smaller nonprofits, is that there’s little training for Designers.  So in most cases, you are responsible for your own growth.

The best thing you can do to help your mission and your career is to learn about the nuts and bolts of fundraising.  You will have to ask for time and budget to buy books, to take classes, to go to a conference. 

And you can ask questions that your organization likely hasn’t asked before, like “what kind of design will resonate best with our donors?” and “How should our look and copy vary from context to context?”

Ask an experienced nonprofit Designer or Creative Director to be a mentor, whether it’s just for one coffee or it’s monthly for years.  This profession is full of generous people.  Sitting here writing this, I can think of nine people who helped me over the years, and I don’t ever remember being turned down.

If you advocate for yourself, and you’re curious, you’ll cause your organization to raise more money.  Designers who do this are worth their weight in gold. 

What’s your job?

I’ll end with a picture from the cover of my favorite book on design, Type & Layout

The designers who are communicating are gifts to their organization and beneficiaries, and will always have their plates full of interesting work.

Ask Culture vs Guess Culture

Ask culture and guess culture.

Sometimes an idea or perspective from outside the world of Fundraising can help you see the work of Fundraising more clearly. 

That’s what happened when I heard about “Ask Culture vs Guess Culture.”

Here’s a quote from when this idea first appeared online

In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer.

When an organization is operating in Guess Culture, here are three of the behaviors you see:

  • Over-stewarding of donors
  • Never asking, or Asks that aren’t direct or clear
    • Perfect example: I did a “creative review” for an organization where I looked at twelve pieces of their fundraising.  In all those pieces they never actually asked the donor to give a gift. 
  • Under-communicating out of a fear of “donor fatigue”

You’re also seeing Guess Culture at work any time you hear a Major Gifts Officer say something like, “If you do a great job of stewarding a donor, you won’t even have to ask.”

Guess Culture and Fundraising

I think the unique demands of nonprofit fundraising cause people and organizations to operate in Guess Culture more than they normally would. 

Asking for money is a vulnerable experience, and it’s hard to be vulnerable.  Many times, for many reasons, it’s emotionally easier to shower donors with stewardship and give them the occasional “opportunity” to give… instead of boldly preparing a specific offer and asking the donor to make a gift.

And of course the Guess Culture approach works sometimes.  Because donors are generous, any approach will work sometimes.

But looking at the performance of the nonprofits we’ve worked with over the years, an Ask Culture approach to major gifts fundraising (and to direct response fundraising) works better.  It results in raising more money and keeping more donors year-over-year.

Ask Culture major gifts fundraising looks like:

  • When setting up a conversation or meeting, telling the donor in advance whether you’re going to ask for money or not
  • Being willing to ask major donors for more than one gift a year
  • Asking for a specific amount
  • Asking directly with phrases like, “…so I’m asking if you’ll give a gift of $10,000”
  • After the ask is made, being silent and letting the donor speak next

Of course there will be a few “no”s.  Of course there will occasionally be an uncomfortable silence.

But you’ll get a lot more “yes”es and you’ll raise more money for your cause.



Quick story.

A few years ago I wrote a letter for a large, national organization you know the name of.

The letter was a huge success – it doubled the number of gifts they projected, and the average gift was higher than expected, too.

The President of the organization was pleased with the letter’s performance… and thought it would have raised even more if it was more in his voice.  So he wrote the letter the following year. 

His letter brought in half the number of gifts. 

The president is a very smart person and a great public speaker.  But his communication style – his “voice” – was not effective in direct mail.

There’s no judgment here; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his voice.  But no one voice is always the best voice for all contexts. 

Quick common example: an organization decides that as part of their voice they will always describe their beneficiaries with one particular phrase, and that phrase is highly academic.  That phrase is perfectly appropriate in a grant application to a foundation with subject-matter expertise.  However, in a fundraising email to individual donors who don’t immediately know what the phrase means, the phrase will usually cause the organization to raise less money.

A nonprofit’s “voice” needs to be flexible enough to be modified for whatever context it’s communicating in.  To be most effective, a speech to a state legislature should sound a little different than a direct mail letter to individual donors, which in turn should sound a little different than a grant application.

If your Executive’s voice, or your brand voice, isn’t flexible enough to be adapted to meet the requirements for success in whatever context you’re communicating in, slavishly following any voice is costing you more than it’s helping you.

If you use the appropriate voice for each context, instead of using the same voice in every context, you will raise more money.

Fundraising in the 2024 Election Year – The Election Storm

Election storm.

This is our third post to help with your election-year fundraising.  (Be sure to read about what to do in The Noisy Spring and The Summer Slump.)

Today’s topic is The Election Storm (September through Election Day).

The Election Storm

As the political campaigns reach their peak, and media attention is laser-focused on the election, fundraising for non-political organizations tends to drop.

During this period, you should expect a lull in giving. That September appeal that’s always a winner won’t work quite as well.  Those major donors who always buy a table at your event… a couple of them won’t do it this year.

Here’s how to make the most of this period, and set yourself up for a strong year-end:

  1. Run the campaigns you normally run. Just be aware that they probably won’t raise as much as normal.  And try to avoid any important fundraising communications in the 10 days before the election. 
  2. Continue to communicate with your donors. Share stories of success, and tell your donors the powerful difference their gift has made. Your donors will be inundated with a lot of negative news – be the bright spot in their day!
  3. Maintain an active presence on social media. As we saw during the pandemic, many people are eager to talk, read, and hear about things other than the “News.” Your social media followers will be grateful for the positive things they see in their feed.

Don’t panic if giving looks different from typical years. Work your plan and get everything in place for what’s coming next… The Year-End Rally!

Read this series of blog posts:


Band practice.

When you’re in a band, it’s much more enjoyable to walk onstage when you know how to put on a good show. 

But when your band performs its first shows, you don’t know yet how to put on a good show.  You need to perform a lot of shows before you get good, before you have that “earned confidence” when you walk out in front of a crowd.

It’s the same thing with your fundraising materials; it’s much more enjoyable to send out a letter when you know it’s a good appeal.

But when you send your first appeals, you don’t know yet how to write or design a good appeal.  You need to send a lot of appeals before you get good, before you have that earned confidence that “this appeal is going to raise a lot of money for us.”

Just like with the band, you have to practice before you get good. 

The incredible thing is that in fundraising, you don’t need confidence when you start!  Your audience is friendly to your fundraising.  Your donors care about the cause you’re working on, and they want to help!

It is on you to get started, though.

Make Your Appeal Letters Accessible

Accessible typewriter.

We want to help you create appeal letters that are accessible for your donors.

You may have heard that the average donor is a 65-year-old woman.  She receives a LOT of mail.  To get through it all, she’s scanning and in a hurry.  But that doesn’t change the fact that she wants to make a difference.

The easier it is for a donor to read and understand your appeals, the more accessible your appeals are, and the more likely your donors are to give.

Here are some ways to make your appeals more accessible for your donors:

  • Use font size 12 and up.
  • Indent the beginning of each paragraph.
  • Write in high-contrast colors (black text on white paper).
  • Write at a middle-school grade level.
  • Use underlines and bolded sentences to show donors the most important sentences.  Each emphasized phrase should be understandable without reading the whole letter in case the highlighted sentences are the only ones she has time to read.
  • Use a double-space after a period.  It will be slightly easier for her to separate your sentences.

Writing accessible appeal letters will help more of your appeals get read, and show your donor the incredible difference she can make for your beneficiaries.  But your donor won’t know the difference she can make if the appeal is written in small text she can’t read, or if it uses colors she can’t see clearly.

It’s little changes like this that will make your appeal letters accessible, and help you raise more money!

Could Your Fundraising Be More Accessible?


Here’s a goal for your fundraising in 2024 – make it more accessible.

The ethical reasons are clear: we should not make unnecessary design and language choices that make it harder for people to see, read and understand.

Additionally, the financial reasons are clear:

  • When more people can easily read your fundraising, more of your fundraising will be consumed, and you’ll raise more money.
  • When more people can quickly understand your fundraising, more people will keep reading, and you’ll raise more money.

Our next three blog posts will be full of tips for how you can make your fundraising more accessible.  All of the tactics we’ll share, as well as the overall idea, are part of the Universal Design movement.  (But we just call it smart fundraising 🙂 )

In the meantime, take a look at your fundraising and ask yourself:

  • Is the text easy for an older person to read?
  • Is the design easy for a “scanner” to quickly know what’s most important?
  • Is the copy written so that the reader needs a college education to understand it, or is it accessible to people with less education?

It’s emotionally stretching for an organization to make their fundraising more accessible.  But you’ll be doing the right thing.  And in my experience, you’ll also raise more money.

There Is No Secret Meeting

Secret meeting.

For small nonprofits that are struggling to raise money, it’s tempting to imagine that there’s a secret meeting.

You know, the meeting where all the donors from your town get together on Zoom and decide not support your organization.

If your fundraising life feels that way, you might consider asking yourself a couple of questions. 

  • Does your fundraising make it clear what will happen when the donor gives a gift, stated in concrete (not conceptual) language?
  • Have you told people how a gift to your organization will improve a situation that they care about?
  • If donating to your organization might feel risky to donors, what can you do to make it feel less risky?
  • When donors have given to your organization in the past, did your organization take the credit (“Look at what our team accomplished!”) or did you give the credit away to donors (“Look at what you and your generosity accomplished!”)?
  • Does your fundraising make it clear that you need their help?  If not, are you able to boldly and vulnerably ask for support?

When a nonprofit feels like the biggest secret in town, it’s usually something about their fundraising that’s keeping it that way.

You Don’t Need to Convince Your Donors


There’s an approach to fundraising that believes that your fundraising must convince the donor that what you’re working on is important before they will read your message or give a gift.

This is happening any time you see an appeal start out with a statistic.  “There are over 14,000 children in the LA area aging out of the foster care system each year” is one example.  “43% of the wetlands in Okanagan are currently unprotected” is another.

These stats are meant to communicate to the donor that what’s being written about is Important, that this is a Big Deal

The organization’s thinking goes something like, “If the donor only realized how important and what a big problem this is, they would give a gift.” 

In my experience, this approach does not work very well.

Here’s an approach that works better: believe that your donor already cares.

After all, each gift to your organization is a sign that the donor cares about the situation you’re working on and/or your organization.  Your donors have already put themselves on the hook for your cause. 

If you believe that your reader already cares, you skip the whole “try to convince them” part.  This leads to appeals that:

  1. Tell the donor what’s happening right now,
  2. Give an example (usually in the form of a story) of how what’s happening right now is affecting a person / the wetland / whatever you work on,
  3. Tells the donor specifically what their gift will do to help.

By skipping the whole “we have to convince them this is important” part, the letter or email is free to get right to what the donor is more likely to be interested in: what’s happening now, and what their gift will do about it.

Moving forward, trust that your donors don’t need to be convinced.  They’ve already told you with their attention and generosity.