How one nonprofit's redesign boosted its impact

How one nonprofit's redesign boosted its impact

Operation Groundswell saw an opportunity to differentiate from competitors in the overhyped “voluntourism” industry. They coined a whole new term that adventurers and supporters could associate with their organization. They just needed the right branding and design to spread the word.

When David Berkal and Jonah Brotman founded Operation Groundswell in 2006, they had a simple but profound mission: Create more meaningful travel experiences. Through their research, they found that many organizations were already pairing travel programs with volunteer programs, but there were two major issues among them:

  • They were too expensive.
  • The organizations didn’t work with local communities to build their programs.

Berkal and Brotman created an antidote to these issues in Operation Groundswell. Based in Canada, they built travel programs that were financially accessible for students and millennials, and more ethically responsible through collaboration with local organizations and communities.


Operation Groundswell homepage features a large graphic overlayed with handwritten text

The nonprofit has now worked with over 100 local leaders across 18 countries to build more than 20 programs for over 1,600 travelers to date. Programs range from working with farmers in Ecuador and building educational opportunities in India to exploring animal conservation efforts in Belize.

Operation Groundswell even created its own term for its mission and target audience: Backpacktivist

Backpacktivist [noun] - A traveler who is socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the places that they travel to and live in

It’s not easy to branch out from an established industry. But Operation Groundswell has succeeded by building a comprehensive, engaging, and recognizable brand.

“Our overall brand is our most important design asset,” said Justine Yu, Communications & Marketing Director at Operation Groundswell. “I’m not just talking about our logo but also our voice, tone, typography, color palette, and other supporting graphics that remain consistent throughout all of our promotions and communications.”

Here’s a look at how Operation Groundswell has used social assets, A/B testing, print materials, mobile experiences, and an entire rebrand to reach supporters and potential travelers.

Design isn’t just about aesthetic – it’s also about experience

Operation Groundswell knows it’s not enough to make your brand assets pretty. You also have to make them immersive, intuitive, and easy to navigate.

“Design is not just about aesthetic,” Yu said. “It’s also, just as importantly, about a person’s experience interacting with your brand.”

That’s the approach the nonprofit took when rebranding its website.

“We like to call it our storefront because it is literally the one-stop shop where people learn about organization, understand our approach to ethical travel and responsible volunteering, and apply to join our international programs,” Yu said.

They worked with design agency LOOP, freelance web developers, and a small in-house design team on the project. They prioritized incorporating textural images, multimedia, and more playful typography into the website.

the backpacktivist experience

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The What To Expect page, for example, now includes video footage from their travel experiences to help tell engaging stories around each program element.

“Before it was all text in bullet-point form,” Yu said. “We wanted to integrate more imagery and make it a more visual experience for people who visit our website.”

They also created a specific path for each visitor by placing a bright, orange call-to-action button on each page. This made it as easy as possible for people to make their way to the program page and begin the application process.

og sea cities sanctuaries

The redesign has paid off.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in our web traffic,” Yu said. “Anecdotally, we’ve also heard so much great feedback from our applicants and participants telling us how great the website looks and how much sleeker and more on-brand it is.”

Creating a brand persona

“If our brand was a person, who would they be?”

That’s the question the Operation Groundswell team asked themselves as part of their rebrand.

“We created a profile of the kind of person our brand would be complete with qualities and attributes – and this comes through in every part of our marketing and communications,” Yu said. “For us, this is the first and most essential step in creating connection with our community of ethical travelers.”

This brand persona is part of the nonprofit’s overall brand book, which is core to everyone’s training at Operation Groundswell. It includes an elevator pitch, “Backpacktivist Manifesto,” social media Dos and Don’ts, and even “Words We Love.”

“Donning an easy pair of jeans, a well-worn t-shirt, a pair of practical (but cool!) Blundstone boots, and a backpack full of the essentials (think hat, water bottle, rain coat, and swiss-army knife), Operation Groundswell is the adaptable, resourceful explorer open to whatever or whoever comes his/her way.” the book states. “Forever young-at-heart, Operation Groundswell puts those around him/her at ease as s/he naturally weaves in between the lines of thoughtfulness and silliness, knowing what each moment calls for.”

This brand book helps Operation Groundswell maintain a unified voice, tone, and look as the company continues to grow.

Tailoring social content for each channel

Each social platform has unique audiences, formats, and content types. That’s why Operation Groundswell tailors each piece for content for each channel.

“As a nonprofit, it’s hard to create different content for all these different platforms because you are on a limited budget and you probably are understaffed and overworked,” Yu said. “But we’re really lucky that our executive board understands the importance of marketing to reaching a much wider audience. And the wider the audience we reach, we are just more likely to achieve our mission.”

On Facebook, where Operation Groundswell has over 100,000 followers, the nonprofit largely shares articles and events to build discussion around ethical travel and responsible volunteering.

OG Facebook Event Post

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Instagram, on the other hand, is a visually heavy platform and requires a different strategy.

“We know that people are constantly scrolling, just looking for really, really beautiful photos,” Yu said. “So you'll see our feed is full of high-quality photography that's made by us, our program leaders, and their own staff of regional directors.”

Operation Groundswell does try to tell stories in its Instagram captions, but they know that people’s attention span is short and they’re not exactly looking to stop and read on the platform.

og instagram

“We really want to explore Instagram Stories, but unfortunately haven’t had the time yet,” Yu added. “We're seeing other brands and even our own participants use it on the ground in a really innovative way to tell a story about our partners and their experiences.”

A/B testing Facebook ads and emails

Operation Groundswell runs Facebook ads to test its photos and captions against its target audiences, such as females aged 18-24.

For example, they tested different categories of images including group photos, landscapes, and photos of partners. They found that photos of mountains actually drive most people to their website from the ads. So they’re able to take that insight and incorporate more mountain photos into their Facebook content.

OG Facebook post

Operation Groundswell is also using A/B testing to figure out what messaging best among American audiences. Canadians have historically made up 70% of its program participants, but their American market has expanded dramatically within the last two years.

Another interesting finding was that American audiences behave much differently on Facebook than Canadian audiences do. So they’ve been using A/B testing to figure out which types of messaging work best for American users. But the language they’ve been using to reach their Canadian audience isn’t quite resonating with Americans.

“We’re pretty close in terms of geography and culture, but we’re actually discovering that Canadians and Americans behave quite differently in the way they react to our advertising,” Yu said.

She and her team have a theory as to why this is happening: Americans aren’t as interested in social justice issues abroad because there are so many issues still happening on their home soil. Americans might also be cynical about Facebook ads in general given the scandals around data privacy and how fake news ads influenced the election.

To grab their attention, Operation Groundswell reworked its copy to highlight the connection between going abroad and becoming a better activist when you return home.

“This is a really important part of our programming,” Yu said. “We don’t just volunteer for a few weeks and go back to our normal lives.

Our hope and mission is that these programs educate you and catalyze change within yourself to do more when you get back home.

Outside of Facebook, the nonprofit also began A/B testing its email newsletters. They send out drip campaigns for different audience segments and change up the subject lines to see which generate the highest open rates. Once readers open the emails, Operation Groundswell tests the actual design content of those emails. For instance, some emails will present an image up top and others will get straight to the content. They’re looking to see which format generates more clicks on the call-to-action button.

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“There’s so much you can do with A/B testing, so many different elements that you can test, it’s kind of blowing our minds,” Yu said. “Especially as a nonprofit, where money is limited, this is a way for us to learn a lot about our users and supporters quickly and deliver what’s important to them.”

Building print assets for partner organizations

Operation Groundswell runs custom study abroad programs with a number of universities, including University of Toronto, Stanford University, and Boston University.

To connect students with these programs, the nonprofit creates a range of print materials – such as pamphlets and postcards – that universities can place on their front desks and distribute on campus.

The postcards, for example, are a fun way and on-brand to promote a travel company. They include photos from different regions students can travel to as well as information about each program.

og print materials

Operation Groundswell has several printed material, including postcards and maps, that can be used by students

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Going further, Operation Groundswell also designs program packages, which are more in-depth booklets that include resources like packing lists, local partners in each region, music to listen to on your trip, and books and movies to check out before traveling. These help get students excited for their journeys and informed about what to expect when they arrive.

It’s also evident that the print materials match the design of the website. This allows students to enjoy a seamless and intuitive experience as they move between offline and online sources to learn more about the company.

Focusing on mobile-first design

Mobile design is crucial when trying to reach a target audience of 18-24 year olds in North America. These consumers are digitally savvy and if they’re interested in travel and new experiences, they’re likely to be on the go and using mobile devices.

That’s why Operation Groundswell is working to revamp its mobile experience. In fact, in the last year, they’ve seen that 65% of website traffic comes from mobile and 35% from desktop, when those numbers used to be reversed.

“It’s imperative for us to change with the times and technological trends,” Yu said.

For example, they will redesign their application form. While it works for desktop, it’s too long for mobile as there are too many questions that require long answers.

The nonprofit will work to shorten the form for mobile users or create an option where users can receive a follow-up email with the full application, which they can then complete when they have more time.

Pivoting towards a content-driven future

Going forward, Yu and the Operation Groundswell team hope to delve into more content-driven marketing. For example, investment platform Wealthsimple promotes informational and educational blog posts – not just calls to action – in its Facebook ads.

Operation Groundswell could create its own content around social justice issues and volunteerism in the travel industry.

“As a nonprofit, our mission is to change the way people travel so that they do so more ethically and responsibly – and they can do that with or without Operation Groundswell,” Yu said. “For me, that’s very smart advertising.

You create legitimacy, create trust, and provide value first and foremost.

Of course, Operation Groundswell has already taken major steps to accomplishing this goal. They’ve used design to build a solid brand that’s tailored for their target audience of backpacktivists. And they’ve ensured that this brand is consistent across platforms, providing not just an aesthetically pleasing experience, but an intuitive and engaging one as well.

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