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How Pencils of Promise uses design to engage social advocates across the world

How Pencils of Promise uses design to engage social advocates across the world

About Pencils of Promise

There are 250 million children around the world who can’t read and write. Pencils of Promise(opens in a new tab or window) is a nonprofit for-purpose organization changing that by building schools and providing education to children in need in Ghana, Guatemala, and Laos. They use design to share their mission and engage social advocates across the globe.

Pencils of promise homepage

Pencils of Promise website homepage

The challenge

Pencils of Promise has built over 580 schools and provided education to over 232,000 students. But they didn’t get there alone. From the beginning, Pencils of Promise has empowered advocates to share their support and spread the word about this mission.

“One month before our organization was founded in October 2008, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and philanthropic dollars were the first to go,” says Head of Brand Innovation & Talent Relations, Carlo Dumandan. “But when people are most low, they are looking for positivity.”

Pencils of Promise saw an opportunity to take an innovative approach to fundraising, built on the belief that if we want to move the world, we have to do it collectively.

The question they sought to answer was: How do you connect people to your mission and show them the impact of their work when the people they’re helping are thousands of miles away?

“Finding ways to bridge our community of supporters to the students, teachers and families they're impacting has always been a challenge,” Carlo says. “But it's a challenge that fuels our creativity, and energizes us to constantly explore new platforms and design new tools and resources to bring to life our mission and impact.”

The solution

Through that creativity, Pencils of Promise has launched forward-thinking marketing and design strategies across their social media, email, and websites. Here are five branding and design insights Pencils of Promise uses to inform, inspire, and engage advocates across the globe.

1. A great brand tells a consistent story

There are over 1 billion websites(opens in a new tab or window) and 2.4 billion social media users(opens in a new tab or window) on the Internet—and those numbers are constantly increasing. Nonprofit companies need to build a unified brand message if they want to stand out.

“When you're looking to grow any type of company, regardless of industry, having a consistent voice and visual language allows you to put forth the strongest message possible,” Carlo says.

“Our aim was to create an organization that enables you to make a tangible difference regardless of your age or socioeconomic status—where every person can be a philanthropist.”

Building a brand book

Before they shared this message with the world, however, they needed to make sure it was understood internally. That’s why Carlo was tasked with building a brand book when he first joined Pencils of Promise seven years ago. This digital portfolio covered the mission, philosophy, terminology, palette, and design elements that comprised the Pencils of Promise brand. It was a way of saying, “This is who we are. This is what we look like. This is what we sound like.”

For example, the brand book highlights the organization’s “100% Promise,” which says that all online donations will go directly to programs instead of overhead costs, and that Pencils of Promise will rigorously measure the return on investment for every dollar it receives.

Pencils of Promise Brand Book

The organization's 100% promise

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“This was a really important way to build a strong foundation for the vision we wanted to build together,” Carlo says. “If everyone shared the same message through social and through partnered marketing campaigns, that would be the only way—as a small organization—to be as efficient as possible."

Impact-led storytelling

Carlo also stresses that a brand message shouldn’t just be a list of features and programs; it should tell a simple, compelling story that appeals to the emotions of your audience. For instance, Pencils of Promise runs a range of programs: building schools, supporting and training teachers, and educating people about the importance of hygiene and sanitation. But that only resonates if people can’t understand the impact they’re making.

“Our work has to be as approachable to a 50-year-old donor as it is to a five-year-old donor who wants to put up a lemonade stand for us,” he says. “Talking about our work in a way that resonates with multiple audiences while telling a consistent story is my number-one lesson.”

Showing impact with imagery

That’s where social graphics come into play. Pencils of Promise uses its social channels to tell stories about the people who have been impacted by its work. Beautiful, original photography plays a large role in this strategy.

“One of our pro bono photographers, Nick Onken, has been game-changing for us. We’ve worked with him since 2009,” Carlo says. “He does such a great job of highlighting the optimism and the hope that education brings.”

Pencils of Promise IG post

#SeasonofPromise campaign: Instagram post shared by Pencils of Promise

Giving not taking on social media

In fact, Pencils of Promise rarely uses social media to ask supporters to donate.

“We realized early on that social networks don’t get people to donate; they get people to connect to your mission,” Carlo says. “When they're connected, they'll not only donate, but they'll also get their friends and family to donate to you, too, as they see how invested that person is in your organization.”

Strategic use of color

That’s why they only ask people to donate during their two pillar campaigns: Back to School, which runs from August to October, and Seasons of Promise, which runs from November to January.

“When we do (ask people to donate), we focus on simple, clear calls to action on the graphics we post. From a design perspective, that usually means the strategic use of font colors that bring contrast and will make the call to action stand out.”

seasons of promise instagram graphic

#SeasonofPromise campaign: Instagram post shared by Pencils of Promise

Stirring emotions with color

Pencils of Promise also recently started expanding beyond its core palette of marigold and graphite grey. For example, they’ve begun incorporating blue tones into their campaign graphics.

Marigold represents our bold optimism while graphite grey keep us grounded in the work we do. We also have an extended palette with carefully chosen hues of blues and greens used for specific CTA's on our website and campaigns.

Our core palette is our everyday pencil; our extended palette is "a box of Crayola markers" that we utilize to highlight and create contrast with specific content.

back to school instagram graphic

Back to School campaign by Pencils of Promise

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And they accomplish all of this with a small in-house design team.

“People are surprised that we only have two designers internally: a lead designer and a coordinator,” Carlo says. “They’re a small but mighty team that works on all of our assets from offline to online so we can ensure brand consistency and that we’re truly evoking the Pencils of Promise image.”

2. Millennials want to influence—not be influenced

Millennials are some of the most vocal and tech-savvy consumers on the Internet. If you can reach them, chances are you can reach their networks and communities as well. You just have to take the right approach.

“We've learned that millennials don't like to be influenced; rather, they prefer to do the influencing,” Carlo says. “By empowering our supporter base with the tools to advocate on behalf Pencils of Promise, they can be catalysts that drive both awareness and donations.”

Looking past age to mindset

Still, Pencils of Promise doesn’t just target “millennials” as one generation. It sees and speak to the “millennial” in all of us.

“Rather than focusing on ‘millennials’ as an age group, we've always thought of ‘millennial’ as a mindset and a thread of common values (solution-focused, have global mindset, value transparency and authenticity) that resonate with a wide audience, regardless of age.”

Toolkits for change

That’s why the organization places Campaigner Toolkits(opens in a new tab or window) on its website. These are PDFs that anyone can download to access tips and ideas for creating an effective campaign on behalf of Pencils of Promise.

Campaigner Toolkit

Pencils of Promise Campaigner Toolkit

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The Campaigner Toolkits also include links to downloadable assets such as photographs, logos, Facebook cover graphics, and X (formerly Twitter) backgrounds.

2014 Pencils of Promise Ghana 200th

2014 Pencils of Promise Ghana 200th

With these resources, Pencils of Promise makes it as easy as possible for supporters to share their campaigns with friends and family, raise funds, and update their networks as they near their campaign goal.

The nonprofit also invites supporters to pledge their birthday and raise money in lieu of gifts. For every $75 raised, a child in need can receive a year of education. This digital flyer explains the process clearly.

Birthday One Pager

Pencils of Promise Birthday page

Everyone who launches a birthday page will gain access to a suite of ready-made graphics that help them promote their campaigns. Just look at this one, which lets family and friends know that they have five days left to donate.

5 Days Left

Pledge your birthday with Pencils of Promise

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3. Activate cause marketing campaigns

“We made two big bets early on at Pencils of Promise,” Carlo says. “The first was that social media would become woven into the fabric of our society, and the second was on the rise of cause marketing.”

The power of cause marketing

Cause marketing is a strategy that for-profit brands use to give back to those in need and earn greater respect from their audiences. It often involves teaming up with nonprofit companies on cause-based campaigns and initiatives.

Pencils of Promise was on the right track when it invested in the emergence of cause marketing.

“We didn’t have a single major donor when we started, so we focused on building an engaged digital community that became the lifeblood of the organization,” Carlo says. “Since then, this community has launched over 38,000 personal fundraisers. This has enabled us to build cause marketing campaigns with some of the top companies in the world, including Microsoft, Stuart Weitzman and Warby Parker.”

Achieving more together

For example, the organization recently partnered with shoe brand Stuart Weitzman and model Gigi Hadid to launch the Gigi Boot, a hiker-inspired combat boot offered in three materials. This collaboration celebrates Weitzman’s commitment to building three schools with Pencils of Promise.

gigi boot stuart weitzman

Pencils of Promise in collaboration with Stuart Weitzman and Gigi Hadid: Twitter post shared by Pencils of Promise

Pencils of Promise also harnesses star power at its annual galas, which honor ambassadors and leading figures in international education. At last year’s gala, for instance, Wiz Khalifa delivered the headline performance. The organization promoted the big event with custom social graphics, such as this one on Instagram.

gala instagram graphic

2016 Pencil of Promise Gala: Instagram post shared by Pencil of Promise

4. Offer transparency through data

Last year, Pencils of Promise launched its live Impact Data Hub(opens in a new tab or window)—using engaging design to share the latest data and results from its programs. As the title suggests, the purpose of this dashboard pulls back the curtain on the organization, and be completely up-front about what’s working, what isn’t, and what lies ahead.

Using data visualization to share insights

Pencils of Promise's website breaks down developments in Pencils of Promise’s impact, community, staff, and financials. This information can often be difficult to digest. That’s why Pencils of Promise uses graphics and data visualization techniques to make its metrics approachable and easy to understand.

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The Pencils of Promise team has learned that their audience loves infographics. Their emergent learning strategy makes for constant reflection on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and by publicizing their milestones and learnings, the team hold themselves accountable to their supporters.

Pencils of Promise also promotes its transparency efforts on social media with custom graphics. Take this Facebook graphic, for example. It shows how readers can easily access the report on their mobile devices.

instagram report graphic

#TransparencyTalk: Facebook post shared by Pencils of Promise

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5. Stay true to your values

You can launch countless campaigns, social accounts, and design initiatives. But at the end of the day, you can’t lose sight of what you’re trying to do: Change the world.

“Funny enough, our brand promise is that Everyone Has Promise,” Carlo says. “It’s the beautiful duality between the idea that 1) Every person can be a philanthropist, and 2) Through education, we're unlocking the potential and positively impacting the life trajectory of a child. This is what keeps our brand grounded.”

Most importantly, as Pencils of Promise knows, you must remember that you need people—engaged, inspired, and committed people—to help you accomplish your goal.

Pencils of Promise exists because we believe that every child deserves access to a quality education. Until then, each pencil, each dollar, each supporter is essential. As we grow, it's important that every donor feels valued and appreciated regardless of their age or size of their gift—and that they can make a difference through a Pencils of Promise campaign.

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