On the Internet, nonprofits have to compete with celebrities, big brands, and entertainment media for attention. The International Rescue Committee uses branding and design to build an immediate connection with its audience.

There’s no easier way to spread information today than through social media. With the click of a button, nonprofits can send content right into people’s hands and pockets. They just have to be sure their messages are engaging enough to stop people — or, at least their scrolling thumbs — in their tracks.

That’s why the design and social teams at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) work together to create content that’s fit for the digital realm.

IRC website banner
IRC website banner

Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC provides emergency aid and long-term assistance to people affected by humanitarian crises across the world. With a portfolio of work spanning over 40 countries, the IRC’s content teams have a lot of ground to cover. And if they want to grab people’s attention online, they only have a split second to make their messages heard.

“Whether it’s a text graphic, a pictogram, or an important statistic, we aim to create thumb stopping, sharable content,” said Alexandra Nowacki, Senior Officer of User Experience Design for the IRC.

This strategy helps the IRC stand out in such a competitive space. As Nowacki noted, marketing-led initiatives like RED and the ONE Campaign have transformed charity branding. And traditional nonprofits have had to up their design games in order to compete.

IRC logo
IRC logo

“The IRC's strong brand voice, use of color, and bold imagery helps differentiate us in the nonprofit sector,” Nowacki said. “Still, visual design and branding cannot intrude or overwhelm the important subjects and situations we are dealing with. Those must take center stage.”

That’s easier said than done, so let’s take a look at how the IRC does it right.

Here are four core design strategies the IRC uses to share its message and connect with its audience.

Develop a bold and unique brand style

The IRC’s content can easily be identified by its unique and eye-catching style.

“Our design uses a clean graphic style and features strong photography combined with bold typography which helps us communicate with authority, immediacy, authenticity and power,” Nowacki said.

The IRC’s work often features a yellow and black color palette, as seen in this Instagram graphic promoting their partnership with Sesame Street.

IRC IG post
Instagram post shared by IRC

This treatment doesn’t just apply to social graphics, however. The IRC also uses this style for its website graphics.

“We have a visual language that we use for our illustrated maps and infographics, so they have uniformity when you come across them,” Nowacki said. “These treatments are very much a part of the site design so that they feel like an extension of the site’s minimal geometric style.”

For example, this small infographic sits in the middle of an article about Syria’s education crisis. It utilizes the same typography and color scheme as the surrounding text. So it fits right into the feed and aids the story, as opposed to distracting from it.

IRC blog graphic
IRC blog graphic: 'Syria's education crisis: once-thriving classrooms gutted by war'

Create your own infographics in Canva with templates like Charity List Infographic and Stop Poverty Charity Infographic.

Be prepared to react

There are two major variables nonprofits can’t always predict:

  1. How audiences will react to their content
  2. How political developments will affect the discourse around their work

The IRC prepares for both.

“When there is a breaking emergency and it’s all hands on deck, we will make use of template or if needed create something new that’s appropriate for the message,” Nowacki said.

On September 5, for example, President Trump revealed his decision to cut the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, threatening to deport 800,000 young adults who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children. The next day, the IRC was ready with these social graphics.

“The importance of being really reactive on social channels and our website to current events can make all the difference to being part of the conversation and advocating for our mission,” Nowacki said. “This doesn’t always mean it has to be the most polished design or the most amazing photo, but the combination of timing and message are what matters.”

The IRC also took this approach after President Trump announced the travel ban, which barred many refugees from entering the U.S. Thinking quickly, the IRC created a portrait grid from a previously released photo series called “Dreams,” which was sponsored by Game of Thrones actress Lena Headey. All they had to do was add a yellow filter and text that read, "I stand with refugees."

IRC FB post
Facebook post shared by IRC

“The original concept was created when Lena traveled to our programs in Lesbos, Greece,” Nowacki said. “She was inspired by the refugees she met at the camp and worked with us to create a video and portrait series about the dreams of these refugees who were forced to leave their home country, and what they now dream of.”

Still, that wasn’t the last of the design. It popped up again a few months later for World Refugee Day.

“The image inspired our fans and their friends so successfully,” Nowacki said, “we decided to carry this message and design forward for this campaign.”

This time, however, Nowacki’s team had a new idea: Swap out the yellow filter and make the portraits clearer. To see which design resonated most with their audience, they tested both versions via Facebook ads.

The winner? The new design.

“The performance on the winning creative was clear so that we could move forward and use this treatment in our share graphics, landing page and profile images.”

Stand with Refugees FB post
Facebook post shared by IRC

Educate and empower supporters

It’s hard for people to support a cause when they don’t fully understand it. That’s why the IRC uses design to educate its audience about the realities of humanitarian crises. Still, Nowacki’s team can’t just throw numbers at people and hope that they’ll stick. They have to create something engaging enough that it can stand out in people’s social feeds.

“It’s critical to dispel a lot of the damaging myths about refugees or aid in a visually compelling way,” Nowacki said. “We know people tune out numbers and dense technical information. So we try to package this information in an accessible and compelling way, and in formats that are ripe for sharing on social media.”

For example, the IRC publishes a series of “Myth vs. Fact” graphics, which debunk common misconceptions about the refugee crisis.

Create your own fact-based social graphics in Canva with templates like Illustrated Head Social Media Graphic and Bordered Global Warming Facts Social Media Graphic.
The IRC also created its “Famous Refugees” series, profiling notable artists in history who were refugees themselves. This helps make the crisis more relatable and easier to understand. After all, people might feel removed or unaffected by these issues when, in fact, some of the most influential people in the world were refugees. They were lucky enough to be given a chance to rebuild their lives and find safety in another host country.

Break down emotional barriers

When you strip away all of the technicalities -- the facts, the figures, the design strategies -- the one thing that really gets people to stop and look is a story; one that evokes emotion and sparks inspiration.

Whether it’s a profile of a young girl who fled Syria or a hopeful quote from Albert Einstein in times of need, there must be some heart at the center of all this design.

IRC Albert
Instagram post shared by Albert

Create your own quotable social graphics in Canva with templates like Breathtaking Mountains Instagram Post.

Breathtaking Mountains Instagram Post

Only then will that thumb-stopping content turn to heart-beating content that keeps people invested in a cause and coming back for more.
As Nowacki said, “We cover vulnerable people suffering in unimaginable situations thousands of miles removed from our donors and supporter. We urgently need to break through these barriers to empathy. That is what design helps us do.”

Amanda Walgrove is a freelance copywriter based in Los Angeles. She has written for Facebook, A&E Networks, Advertising Week, Entrepreneur, and Variety, among others. She likes to write comedy, too: amandawalgrovecomedy.com