6 challenges nonprofits face—and how to solve them with design

Amanda Walgrove
Amanda Walgrove

WaterAid is a nonprofit, not a marketing agency. Founded over 35 years ago, the UK-based company was equipped to build wells and deliver clean water to those in need. It just wasn’t equipped to spread the word about its cause. That’s where design came in.

"The goal of design is to delight or help someone.”

Those are the words of Stefan Sagmeister, the Austrian designer known for creating album covers for The Rolling Stones, David Byrne, and Jay-Z. And those words are a guiding light for Joélle Azoulay, Creative Strategist at WaterAid.

As the first and only in-house designer for WaterAid, Azoulay understands how important visual content can be for nonprofits, especially in today’s digital age.

“WaterAid didn't start off as a marketing firm,” she said. “We started off as a set of engineers doing the actual work on the ground. But in order to raise money, you need that creative team to help propel your message. We're just catching up to that part.”

WaterAid's homepage
WaterAid's homepage

In the past five years, WaterAid has developed digital marketing teams in the UK and in New York, where Azoulay is based. She’s now helping to educate the rest of the company — and the nonprofit world as a whole — on the importance of design.

“Even though there's a need for design and people want good design, they're not willing to invest in it because it's seen sometimes as frivolous. At the same time, however, it's needed.”

That’s why Azoulay is embarking on a major project: Build a comprehensive report on how design directly contributes to ROI. To bring this research to life, she’ll be working with Celine Schmidt, WaterAid design intern and graduate of the dual degree program at Brown and Rhode Island School of Design.

“I'm really looking forward to amplifying what we've already seen in a concrete way, and to have this information in one place so it’s clear for people,” Azoulay said. She hopes that it can be a valuable tool for designers who need to gather support within their organizations. “It takes a lot of internal advocacy to stick up for your portfolio if you don't have a structure where there is a creative director.”

In the meantime, however, Azoulay continues to brave her own design challenges by building social campaigns, email newsletters, and educational tools that expand WaterAid’s reach among an international audience.

Here are six nonprofit challenges that WaterAid solves with design.

Challenge #1: Building a cohesive visual brand

It’s crucial to convey a cohesive visual brand. This helps audiences easily identify your company and mission. But this is challenge for WaterAid, since digital marketers are scattered across the world and some offices outsource their design.

“Outsourcing kind of fragments the material, which doesn't really lend to branding because the king of branding is repetition,” Azoulay said.

Solution: Create ready-made design templates

WaterAid is rolling out a new global brand in 2018, and they’re Canva using templates to keep the design cohesive.

“We have designed social media templates in Canva,” Azoulay said. “Canva has actually been a huge help in our brand rollout plan as we aim to make templates accessible to non-designers across the organization.”

On Canva, Azoulay can save brand palettes and logos within the platform, so they can easily be applied to any design. This will be especially beneficial in sharing the new, expanded color palette.

“The older brand had a limited color palette focusing on a more monotone look — lots of greys, with blue and gold as highlighters,” Azoulay said. “We are also paying attention to shapes; boxes with rounded edges are said to give a friendly impression.”

For example, Azoulay created an instagram template for partners to promote their Choose a Challenge campaign with US universities.

Signal boost your campaign with social media templates from Canva, like this Red World Refugee Day Social Media Graphic.

Red Text Overlay World Refugee Day Social Media Graphic

With these tools at their fingertips, any WaterAid representative or partner can build a design that best conveys the brand.

“We’re working to make it even easier for anyone on staff to be able to create a workable piece of design that communicates what they need to and that conveys our brand uniquely so it doesn't blend in with the other nonprofit or water-focused organizations.”

Challenge #2: Connecting people with complex crises

Clean water isn’t just important for drinking and staying hydrated. It also contributes to sanitation, hygiene, and health. Still, over 840 million people don’t have access to this basic resource. These are the concepts that WaterAid needs to share with audiences across the globe.

“The challenge is taking a crisis that is conceptually and physically distant, and bringing it closer to home,” Azoulay said. “It’s about connecting people that live so far away from one another.”

Solution: Use imagery to break down concepts

According to a study by MIT neuroscientists, the human brain can process an image in as little as 13 milliseconds. Just think about how fast you scroll and consume information on social media.

“This statistic, to me, is really significant given the social and digital landscapes,” Azoulay said. “It’s a newsfeed world wherever you go with lists of competing content, whether it be in your inbox or on social media.”

That’s why WaterAid uses visuals to quickly convey complex ideas. For example, Azoulay will create bite-sized infographics and short videos to break down concepts. Take, for example, this graphic that illustrates what it feels like to carry a typical jerrycan of water by comparing it to a typical piece of carry-on luggage.

WaterAid Twitter post
An informative graphic created by WaterAid: Twitter post shared by WaterAid

Create your own infographics in Canva with templates like Feeding Program Infographic, Educate Kids Charity Infographic, and Charity Infographic.

“Infographics tend to work well for us in delivering a clear narrative,” Azoulay said. “This graphic helps bring a foreign concept home by using an image that everyone's familiar with: a piece of luggage.”

WaterAid also connects with its audience through its “Voices from the Field” blog. This platform features first-hand accounts from field officers in select countries, including Ethiopia, Madagascar, Pakistan, and Colombia. Each quote or story is accompanied by original photography that conveys the impact of WaterAid’s work.

Voices from the Field
WaterAid's Voices From The Field blog: Photo by Eliza Powell

“People tend to be attracted to images and visual branding that represent their aspirational selves,” Azoulay said. “So having a collection on-hand of easily shareable graphics and powerful images from the field helps us share our message, disseminate calls to action, and recruit supporters.”

Challenge #3: Engaging people across social platforms

Each social channel is unique. Facebook is popular among US adults; Twitter is built for sharing real-time global news; and Instagram is entirely visual and largely mobile. That’s why nonprofits can’t always create one overall strategy for their entire social initiative. Instead, they need to build distinct strategies for each platform and audience.

This isn’t always easy to do. Without the right resources and strategies, nonprofits can waste precious time and money sharing content that doesn’t resonate with supporters.

Solution: Test different content formats

WaterAid tests it content to better understand what audiences want to see across different social platforms.

On Instagram, for instance, WaterAid found that people love pictures of babies!

“We just posted an image with a baby and a bucket of water, and that almost doubled engagement on Instagram,” Azoulay said.

WaterAid IG post
WaterAid's successful Instagram post

Instagram is also a great platform for sharing campaign graphics.

“If we want to start a movement, we can use graphics to combine typography with images or colors, and convey an intentional message,” Azoulay said. “Whereas our photos provide context to our work and connects people to these communities.”

For example, WaterAid supporter Libby Vanderploeg illustrated 26 unique graphics for the “water alphabet.” WaterAid posted one letter each day as a countdown to #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving on social media. This was a unique and creative way to engage supporters around WaterAid’s cause.

Build your own Instagram graphics in Canva with templates like Blue Typographic Instagram Post and Minimalist Blue Instagram Post.

Over on Facebook, users seem to respond well to images of smiling girls with running water.

“In a time when a lot of news being shared over Facebook tends to be negative, people are really looking for that feel-good story,” Azoulay said. “So when they turn to WaterAid, they really appreciate that smiling girl at a water point looking up at you.”

WaterAid FB post
A WaterAid Facebook post

WaterAid also made a surprising discovery on Facebook. Content around women’s menstrual hygiene — which is a crucial aspect of providing clean water — actually does well with men on the social network.

This ties into WaterAid’s successful #IfMenHadPeriods campaign of 2015. Water Aid UK’s in-house film team created a humorous short film that showed what it might be like if men had to use “manpons.” And it was a hit, generating over 2.2 million YouTube views to date.

WaterAid's "Manpons" video
WaterAid's "Manpons" video

“I think that surrogacy of menstruation made guys laugh and share it,” Azoulay said. “It wasn’t directly related to what’s happening in the field, but it allowed people to laugh at themselves, and it did really well on Facebook.”

Challenge #4: Grabbing people’s attention in their inboxes

How many emails people receive each day. They don’t have to time to give their undivided attention to each one. That’s why nonprofits have to design emails that jump out of people’s inboxes and engage them immediately.

Solution: Design emails around a clear call to action

“We think of our emails as one big call-to-action (CTA) button,” Azoulay said. “We like to cut to the chase. We get readers where we want them to go.”

For example, Azoulay will include a CTA button at the top and bottom of the newsletter so readers don’t have to scroll back and forth to complete the task. She will also rely on typography instead of graphics to catch the reader’s eye.

“If we use too many images, the email will go straight into the spam folder,” so said. “So we use typography as a design element. And we make sure that there's enough white space in between blocks of text so the design is simple and always points to the CTA, whether it be donate or join.”

WaterAid email
A WaterAid Email

Another important aspect of the email is the header. It’s the first thing a reader will see when they open your email, and it should clearly represent your brand.

“We want to lead with a good visual brand proposition that makes the reader feel like they're getting something legitimate and not spam,” Azoulay said. “And then we want to make sure that we're visually telling a story that feeds and focuses on the CTA.”

Create your own email headers in Canva with templates like Minimalist Newsletter Email Header and Classic Mail Email Header.

Altogether, Azoulay ensures that width of the email design or text doesn’t exceed 600 pixels because the human eye can only scan sentences that are a certain width. This is especially important on mobile devices, which provide an even smaller amount of space to work with.

“If the text is too wide and someone reading emails on their phone, you don’t want them to have to scroll from left to right,” she said. “You want them to just be able to scan from top to bottom.”

Challenge #5: Distributing information at scale

How does one designer reach millions of people across the world?

Even if you have millions of followers on social media, there’s no guarantee that everyone will see or engage with your posts.

“People think that if you create one thing, everyone's going to see it, and if you create a series of communications, everyone's going to see every point of communication,” Azoulay said. “But that's not the reality.”

That’s why it’s important to build a network of supporters and influencers who can help spread the word about your cause across engaged communities.

Solution: Mobilize advocates and community members

WaterAid creates content to reach influencers inside the classroom and on social media.

The People Pipeline, for example, is a program that provides teachers across the US with posters, stickers, lesson plans, and activities to educate students about the water crisis and raise funds to help children in need.

The initiative launched in August 2017, and has already been implemented in schools across nine states.

people pipeline
The "People Pipeline" lesson plan

Create your own lesson plans in Canva with templates like Blue Pencil Icon Lesson Plan and Blue and Yellow Simple Daily Lesson Plan.

WaterAid also empowered influencers for the World Toilet Day campaign, a.k.a. the #GiveAShit campaign, which brough awareness to the sanitation crisis in 2015. The nonprofit sent fun campaign toolkits to YouTube creators, inspiring them to spread the word and ask for donations from their communities. The kits included stickers, props for social photos, and custom poop emoji pillows designed for each creator.

emojis
"Give A Shit" Campaign Emojis

WaterAid even built an app that lets people design their own poop emojis and share them on social media or make a donation. As a result, the campaign generated 14.5 million social media impressions, 237 million views in the press, and unprecedented awareness about the global crisis. In fact, the app and campaign are still creating ripple impressions to this day.

Challenge #6: Raising funds!

Generating awareness and building a supporter base is important. But at the end of the day, most nonprofits are trying to accomplish one goal: Raise money so they can continue their work.

It’s not always easy to get people to contribute their hard-earned dollars to a cause that impacts people across the world. That’s why it’s so important to inspire and excite people around your mission.

Solution: Be bold about asking for donations

Design and ROI can go hand-in-hand. You don’t have to separate the art from the fundraising; in fact, you shouldn’t.

“As a charity, people expect you to ask for money,” Azoulay said. “We used to provide lot of context before getting to the point, instead of just driving people to what they already expected, which was to support the cause.”

A WaterAid Twitter Post
A WaterAid Twitter Post

This also ties in with another one of Azoulay’s lessons: Keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm your audience with information, especially when they’re first learning about your brand. Engage them with a hopeful or inspiring design, and then fill in the context of your mission.

As Azoulay said, “People don't want to be educated; they want to be inspired. They want to be emotionally moved, and that’s what causes them to take the initial action. Then you can educate them, once you’ve broken the ice.”

Make content worth sharing

Technicalities aside, design is about making something that causes someone to react. It’s about evoking emotion and response that makes someone want to share and tell their friends. That’s why, for designers, sometimes the best measuring stick is your own intuition.

“When you work for an organization and you want to share something with your friends, that's very telling about how successful the content is,” Azoulay said. “You don’t feel like you’re annoying your friends and family. You’re thinking, ‘This is cool stuff. You’re gonna like it. You’re gonna have fun.’ We’ve had a few of those moments, and I think those are very successful design moments.”

These moments can keep designers going as they continue to face new challenges and discover opportunities to engage their audiences. And it all harkens back to that quote from Stefan Sagmeister: “The goal of design is to delight or help someone.”

“That’s the goal for what we create — to make content that’s helpful and inspiring so people want to share it,” Azoulay added, “so they want to join your cause. And in the end, they’re going to feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves.”