Causes and effects

With the recession forcing charities to reconsider the impact their investment in design has on fundraising, Laura Snoad talks to consultancies about the budgetary challenges and creative benefits of working with Third Sector clients

Last month, the Charity Commission issued a report showing 59 per cent of charities have now been hit by the economic downturn – due to either a drop in income or an increased demand from service users – with the figure rising to 81 per cent among larger organisations.

With securing the donations of the public more essential than ever, charities are increasingly rethinking the impact of design on their fundraising potential. But balancing the need for strong creative work with a reduced budget has provided a tough challenge for designers.

David Curless, creative director of digital consultancy Precedent, which has worked with charities including Children’s Hospice and the RSPCA, says that since the recession, some charities find it harder to justify a creative budget at all. He adds, ’It’s seen as marketing, which lots of people frown upon. It can be difficult to see the income that design work can generate.’

Steven Ramsay, creative director of Baigent, which has created websites for Unicef and Cancer Research UK, says, ’We’ve got used to people saying “We’ve got no money”, and we say to them “How much is it worth to you?”. It’s a case of working hard to show the client the potential of its brand plus the strength of videos and images that it already has.’

Aside from access to existing powerful image libraries, both Ramsay and Curless cite better involvement with key decision-makers, the opportunity to build up long-term relationships and the client’s well-developed understanding of target audiences as benefits to working with charities rather than commercial companies.

Although tight budgets bring about restrictions, many consultancies have found such restraints have sharpened creativity and lateral thinking.
Ramsay says, ’Sometimes it’s a case of using open-source software like WordPress, which is really low-budget, and then using all your tricks to skin the site really well.’

He adds, ’There has been a massive surge towards digital, especially with things like e-newsletters and social media, where it’s just a click between the ad and a donation.’

Curless says, ’The increased need for donations means that the user journey has to be exactly right. There has to be really clear interface design which communicates the agenda as quickly as possible.’

As well as working heavily with stakeholders to develop a technical and design brief together, Curless says a lot of Precedent’s initial work for charities involves fiddly administrative tasks such as gaining access to special rates designed for charities, finding ways of avoiding certain licence fees and briefing charities on all the potential options.

Once creative work begins, designers must negotiate their way around expensive problems. Instead of commissioning a costly photo-shoot to document the work of Asthma UK nationally, Together Design created the same images using an in-house illustrator. The result was quirky and personal creative that avoids feeling staged or sterile, says Together brand planner Emily Penny.

Penny says, ’Apart from budget, another challenge is that you’re dealing with something quite abstract.’ Ramsay agrees, adding, ’If I see a poster for Oasis I know straight away it’s a nice fruit drink. But with charities there’s no product. You’ve got to work on those emotional pulls.’
When working with The Health Foundation, Together matched the charity’s groundbreaking message with intelligent creative, says Penny. ’We took a lot of inspiration from editorial design and used the witty storytelling of illustrator Noma Bar to make the imagery work just as hard as the words,’ she adds.

Leeds-based charity St George’s Crypt, whose annual report won Best of Show in the Design Week Awards earlier this year, says strong design has added another layer of legitimacy to its public profile. The crypt’s fundraising and public relations director Martin Patterson says, ’It proves we’ve taken a clear stance on how we deliver our message – we’ve avoided blandness. Of course, people judge your work on your branding, both in style and approach.’

B&W Studio used life-sized photographs of the crypt’s service users to illustrate successful and moving stories. The work put the stories of these people at the heart of the creative, which Patterson says reflects the way the charity feels about its work.

Patterson says, ’When you are going through the challenging period of a recession you have to use all of your armoury, and for us that’s the people who we work with. These personal stories open people’s eyes.’

Aside from creating a hard-hitting, but positive message, designers must appeal to the very different audiences of service users and donors. Ramsay says, ’You’ve got to be careful not to offend anyone or ruffle any feathers. To do something brilliant, you’ve got get to noticed, but it has to be bang on target. If you do it wrong, it can be bad.’ Designers must also work tactfully to maximise the impact of what is essentially a money-making enterprise without being too heavy handed, says Penny. Ramsay agrees, saying, ’People don’t want things shoved down their throats.’

For Unicef’s Put it Right microsite, Baigent got rid of a single donate button and gave users other options such as ’fundraise’ or ’share’. Ramsay says, ’The key is choice for the user, a rationale for the journey and plenty of empathy.’

Designing for charities requires…

Showing how design will provide a return on investment, especially at the pitch stage, says Baigent’s Steven Ramsay

Encouraging the use of social media. The RSPCA pre-election microsite Political Animal, designed by Precedent, receives 6000 hits every week. Most of that traffic was from Facebook, says RSPCA parliamentary officer Stacey Frier

Reducing costs by changing specifications. Together has made print runs cheaper, by resizing brochures from A4 to A5 and using innovative folding techniques instead of binding

Building on existing multimedia. St George’s Crypt is working on an online tour of its site to engage donors before its 80th anniversary

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