Designing for non-profits: 5 pitfalls

On our mission to “making design accessible,” here’s a collection of best practices, common mistakes, and free resources for non-profit organizations.

triptych image featuring Dove's cucumber refillable deodorant, a layered mushroom visual by Bolt Threads, and Seedlip's compostable mushroom gift packaging
triptych image featuring Dove's cucumber refillable deodorant, a layered mushroom visual by Bolt Threads, and Seedlip's compostable mushroom gift packaging

WEB DESIGN

Pitfall #1: information overload

Often, nonprofits create their website under the assumption that maximizing the availability of information is what’s most helpful to viewers. However, this approach causes viewers to quickly become lost in a labyrinth of paragraph content, additional pages, and broken links (oh my), closing the website to escape before reaching a clear call to action. Your website is not a catchall. We repeat. Your. Website. Is. Not. A. Catchall.

One of our favorite tools for improving sites is called Hotjar. Hotjar analyzes your website traffic to understand where users are focusing and/or getting stuck. Another great resource, Gloomaps, enables you to create a sitemap to clarify the structure of your website and streamline your navigation. Make the call-to-action clear, omnipresent, and readily accessible (like a donate button in your navigation bar).

To build websites for nonprofits, we usually choose Squarespace because their user-friendly templates, robust website capabilities, and extensive help menus make it easy for teams without design experience to maintain. Squarespace also allows you to edit your website in mobile view so that you can ensure it is responsive across platforms and devices. Once the website is created, this SEO Starter Guide from Google teaches you how to maximize its searchability, putting you in the best position to connect with new donors and volunteers.

triptych image featuring Everlane's sustainable clothing and smiling employee
triptych image featuring Everlane's sustainable clothing and smiling employee

WEB DESIGN

Pitfall #1: information overload

Often, nonprofits create their website under the assumption that maximizing the availability of information is what’s most helpful to viewers. However, this approach causes viewers to quickly become lost in a labyrinth of paragraph content, additional pages, and broken links (oh my), closing the website to escape before reaching a clear call to action. Your website is not a catchall. We repeat. Your. Website. Is. Not. A. Catchall.

One of our favorite tools for improving sites is called Hotjar. Hotjar analyzes your website traffic to understand where users are focusing and/or getting stuck. Another great resource, Gloomaps, enables you to create a sitemap to clarify the structure of your website and streamline your navigation. Make the call-to-action clear, omnipresent, and readily accessible (like a donate button in your navigation bar).

To build websites for nonprofits, we usually choose Squarespace because their user-friendly templates, robust website capabilities, and extensive help menus make it easy for teams without design experience to maintain. Squarespace also allows you to edit your website in mobile view so that you can ensure it is responsive across platforms and devices. Once the website is created, this SEO Starter Guide from Google teaches you how to maximize its searchability, putting you in the best position to connect with new donors and volunteers.

triptych image featuring Everlane's sustainable clothing and smiling employee

SOCIAL MEDIA

Pitfall #2: posting for posting’s sake

Do you hear that? A rumble in the distance. And then. One post. Two posts. Three posts. Four. A stampede of low-quality event pictures, irrelevant stock photos, and images full of text that should just be captioned.

Some social media experts advocate for posting as much as possible to stay top of mind, but posting too often or posting low-quality photos can reduce your engagement. Low engagement causes many social media algorithms to decrease the priority of your posts. It’s time for some quality control to make every post count. Pay attention to which posts get the most response on each platform and eliminate the content that doesn’t drive interaction. Planoly helps you organize your social media, consider the grid (not just individual posts), and schedule upcoming posts.

Connect with a professional photographer in your area and see if they might be willing to donate their services, and use Pixlr (a free photoshop) if needed. Develop social media templates to reinforce your branding on Canva. Non-profits qualify for a free Canva Pro account which enables you to upload shapes, typefaces, and other visual assets to ensure that your organization has a consistent look and feel across platforms.

triptych image featuring Everlane's sustainable clothing and smiling employee

SOCIAL MEDIA

Pitfall #2: posting for posting’s sake

Do you hear that? A rumble in the distance. And then. One post. Two posts. Three posts. Four. A stampede of low-quality event pictures, irrelevant stock photos, and images full of text that should just be captioned.

Some social media experts advocate for posting as much as possible to stay top of mind, but posting too often or posting low-quality photos can reduce your engagement. Low engagement causes many social media algorithms to decrease the priority of your posts. It’s time for some quality control to make every post count. Pay attention to which posts get the most response on each platform and eliminate the content that doesn’t drive interaction. Planoly helps you organize your social media, consider the grid (not just individual posts), and schedule upcoming posts.

Connect with a professional photographer in your area and see if they might be willing to donate their services, and use Pixlr (a free photoshop) if needed. Develop social media templates to reinforce your branding on Canva. Non-profits qualify for a free Canva Pro account which enables you to upload shapes, typefaces, and other visual assets to ensure that your organization has a consistent look and feel across platforms.

EVENT BRANDING

Pitfall #3: losing sight of the parent brand

Look! Over there! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it an event poster that skyrocketed into outer space and bears absolutely no resemblance to your nonprofit’s brand? Oh. Yeah. It’s that last one.

When designing event materials, we often see non-profits deviate unnecessarily from their established brand assets. The best way to solve this is to create design guidelines — like this great example from Uber — and make sure volunteers can access them. The example to the right from Humble Design builds energy and excitement but remains consistent with the overall look and feel of the brand. If you want to expand your color palette for an event, consider using Coolers, a free color palette generator that can allow you to lock your core brand colors in place and add a couple of playful new shades that feel like part of the family.

If your brand is too formal and unable to adapt to more casual or fun settings, that’s a deeper problem. It might be time for a full rebrand in order to drive consistency and increase flexibility.

triptych image featuring Everlane's sustainable clothing and smiling employee
triptych image featuring Everlane's sustainable clothing and smiling employee

EVENT BRANDING

Pitfall #3: losing sight of the parent brand

Look! Over there! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it an event poster that skyrocketed into outer space and bears absolutely no resemblance to your nonprofit’s brand? Oh. Yeah. It’s that last one.

When designing event materials, we often see non-profits deviate unnecessarily from their established brand assets. The best way to solve this is to create design guidelines — like this great example from Uber — and make sure volunteers can access them. The above example from Humble Design builds energy and excitement but remains consistent with the overall look and feel of the brand. If you want to expand your color palette for an event, consider using Coolers, a free color palette generator that can allow you to lock your core brand colors in place and add a couple of playful new shades that feel like part of the family.

If your brand is too formal and unable to adapt to more casual or fun settings, that’s a deeper problem. It might be time for a full rebrand in order to drive consistency and increase flexibility.

triptych image featuring Everlane's sustainable clothing and smiling employee

ANNUAL REPORTS

Pitfall #4: prioritizing print

Look, we’re primarily a print design agency. We love print. But it may not be the right choice for your annual report. Often, even though most annual reports are primarily accessed and viewed online, nonprofits still design them as print PDFs. 

Girls who Code and the BC Cancer Foundation take a less traditional approach to their annual reports. They use animation, scrolling transitions, video content, and data visualization to create a highly engaging experience. They also prioritize imagery over text to inspire empathy from readers. Online tools like Issuu give digital reports a more tactile user experience with the addition of animated page flipping.

triptych image featuring Everlane's sustainable clothing and smiling employee

ANNUAL REPORTS

Pitfall #4: prioritizing print

Look, we’re primarily a print design agency. We love print. But it may not be the right choice for your annual report. Often, even though most annual reports are primarily accessed and viewed online, nonprofits still design them as print PDFs. 

Girls who Code and the BC Cancer Foundation take a less traditional approach to their annual reports. They use animation, scrolling transitions, video content, and data visualization to create a highly engaging experience. They also prioritize imagery over text to inspire empathy from readers. Online tools like Issuu give digital reports a more tactile user experience with the addition of animated page flipping.

OVERALL BRANDING

Pitfall #5: settling for safe

Non-profit branding tends to be on a spectrum from quirky and unpolished to clean and corporate. The best brands are intentional about how they show up and don’t compromise iconic assets for looking professional. Take Battersea by Pentagram, Onward by Firebelly, or DonorsChoose by Hyperakt for example. 

Finding the right balance between playful and professional enables each of these organizations to be memorable, credible, and flexible for a wide variety of applications from creative fundraisers to reserved grant applications. Don’t be afraid to establish and lean into bold iconic assets that set your organization apart. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog article on what drives good branding and how to create iconic assets.

Is your non-profit organization at a turning point and in need of some extra design help? Apply for our Good Egg Grant — one year of free access to all of our design services. Or get in touch with us for a capabilities presentation.

triptych image featuring Everlane's sustainable clothing and smiling employee
triptych image featuring Everlane's sustainable clothing and smiling employee

OVERALL BRANDING

Pitfall #5: settling for safe

Non-profit branding tends to be on a spectrum from quirky and unpolished to clean and corporate. The best brands are intentional about how they show up and don’t compromise iconic assets for looking professional. Take Battersea by Pentagram, Onward by Firebelly, or DonorsChoose by Hyperakt for example. 

Finding the right balance between playful and professional enables each of these organizations to be memorable, credible, and flexible for a wide variety of applications from creative fundraisers to reserved grant applications. Don’t be afraid to establish and lean into bold iconic assets that set your organization apart. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog article on what drives good branding and how to create iconic assets.

Is your non-profit organization at a turning point and in need of some extra design help? Apply for our Good Egg Grant — one year of free access to all of our design services. Or get in touch with us for a capabilities presentation.