Designing for Nonprofits

We all find ourselves looking in the mirror at one time or another and asking ourselves if we’re doing all we can for the good of society. What’s it all for?

Those of us in the user experience (UX) profession can actually do something about it. As information architects, interaction designers, usability consultants, and developers, we don’t have to change our careers to do something good for society. All we have to do is connect with the right nonprofit: One that shares our goals and whose mission we support.

Once I asked myself that question, I decided to take a sabbatical from the commercial field and devote my time entirely to nonprofit entities. During my two-year nonprofit experience, I found that there are some differences in working with nonprofit organizations that can be monumental challenges.

The most important difference between nonprofits and commercial or government entities is how they do business. This trickles down to every aspect of working with nonprofits and will ultimately affect anyone’s decisions to work or not work with them. The following are some of the challenges I faced in my two-year commitment to only work with nonprofits.

Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are Creatively Divided

A non-profit’s cash reality—the uncertainty of income—is one perspective not shared by government or commercial entities, at least not to the same degree.

Nonprofits depend on their income from government grants or the public-at-large, so an inconsistent cash flow might make them want to scrimp and save. For this reason, many nonprofits tend to break a project into its parts and bid out the work to a variety of companies in an attempt to obtain the most inexpensive solution.

The bidding situations I’ve encountered in this fragmented approach have divided the project into the following parts.

a) Marketing/Campaign management: Most of the time, this is the highest priority and the conversation revolves around how to get donors, volunteers, or activists. Naturally, the conversation then moves to the campaign tool.

b) Design: As of late, nonprofit organizations have begun to pay close attention to the user experience and are actively sending their employees to information architecture, interaction design, and usability conferences. This is a big step in the right direction. If anyone needs UX work, it’s nonprofits since their mission relies on the public’s money, volunteer efforts, and activism. In this case, the user truly is king.

c) Technology: Is it a content management system (CMS) or a campaign management tool? I’ve done a ton of research on this and found no good answer. Large nonprofits almost always buy big CMS tools that they don’t need, many times as a result of politics but also under a false impression of perceived value. I’ve been surprised that, given the option to chose a smaller more effective tool, most nonprofits chose to go with the big CMS because they think they’ll need those extra features in the future. But that future rarely comes because the site design and—most of the time—the back-end change about every five years.

d) Implementation: This generally goes to the company that wins the technology part of the project, unless it’s Sharepoint or something that comes from a large corporation. In this scenario, there may be an intermediate company that does implementation, or the project managing or design vendor will have a group of developers who can implement.

e) Maintenance: This will most likely fall to the internal development team because the organization is looking to spend little money.

So, although in a commercial project I may win the entire project, with a nonprofit I would most likely be one of three or four partners in the project. If that isn’t enough of a challenge, I found that in many nonprofits, stakeholders differ greatly depending on the stakeholder’s position and department.

Stakeholder Expectations May Differ From One Person to the Next

Unlike most commercial projects, where I usually work closely with the marketing team, in nonprofits I worked with all the directors of the entire organization…and the expectations from each stakeholder are entirely unique.

I once found myself in a room with stakeholders who requested very different information. One stakeholder requested a chart of “quantified” user statistics from their current site; another requested “qualified” data. Yet a third wanted to see none of that…”too much information for me.” Managing those kind of expectations can be challenging.

A worst-case-scenario was when I was working on the Big Brothers Big Sisters design and I found myself in a conference room with the directors and CEOs of the federation’s organizations throughout the country. My challenge was to get all the stakeholders on the same page and comfortable enough to allow a handful of the federation agencies to represent the entire country. With my microphone clipped, a projector, and an amazing presentation assistant, I was able to walk them through design elements as they asked questions. By the end of the conference, I had met my challenge with seven agencies representing the entire country.

Focus on the Mission Can Leave Details Dangling

Nonprofits have a mission which is 100 times more amplified than a commercial entity selling products. A nonprofit, by its definition, IS its mission. Without the mission, the organization doesn’t exist. So, while the commercial sector is asking us how they can sell widgets using the web site, the nonprofit is asking how our work is helping the mission.

At first glance I thought this was great; this is what I want commercial companies to do since they’re so often focused on the widget. But it’s not that simple. In order to get buy-in on the big picture, I need consensus on the smaller pieces that make the big picture—usually from a large number of stakeholders. And if the organization is not paying attention to the smaller pieces, getting to the big picture can be difficult.

Creating Emotion in Design

Look and feel is extremely important for nonprofits because emotion is so intertwined with connecting the user to a specific issue or cause. Emotionally compelling creative connects design and the mission. The challenge here is in balancing appropriate design with the emotion necessary to inspire the user to become a volunteer, donate, or call their congressperson.

So how can balance between design, good usability, and emotion be achieved? It all comes down to the designer. The trick is to find designers who can evoke emotion with their design. Having done that, directing good usability and strong design will create the necessary balance to inspire users to act.

One important lesson I’ve learned is that an appropriate design does not translate into a snazzy site with the latest gizmos or the latest in Flash. There are nonprofits who don’t want to look like they’re rolling in money; in fact, their goal is to look like they’re doing their job despite the budget. So, my job is to help them present a lot of information and make the user experience enjoyable. Information architecture professionals are very valuable to nonprofits because we tend to think about how people will find the content rather than how cool the site will look.

Our Work is As Worthwhile as Our Cause

In an ever-changing world, there is one thing that can’t be taken away from us—our conviction. In the past few years, nonprofits have begun to realize that good user experience design is one of the most effective ways they can achieve their goals, and they are beginning to set high standards for their cause. Despite the sometimes peculiar-to-nonprofits challenges, we should help nonprofits step up by adopting a cause and competing for the work—because we know we can do better.


  1. Hi Olga – thanks for raising awareness of this aspect of making a difference. I think too often we get wrapped up in the “corporate” world in our discussions about user experience. One small nit about the title of your article, however. How about “Designing WITH Nonprofits” instead? I think the subtle change from “for” to “with” demonstrates the collaborative nature we are evolving to (instead of the “I am the design agency and you are the client”).

  2. Hi Olga,

    I lead a non profit tutor/mentor program in Chicago and network with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters in our area. I think your article reflects some of the realities of non profits, but would like to see the same story written by someone working with a local non profit that has a fraction of the resources of a large national network like BBBS. Every challenge you mentioned is magnified in the small non profit because instead of farming out the work to paid contractors, we have to farm it out to volunteers. The only advantage we have is that being small, we often have less people in the decision-making mix. If we get an idea, and can find some volunteers and/or donors, we can move the idea forward. In some respects I think this is a parallel to small companies competing for business with big companies, using the internet to innovate ways to develop new products and reach new customers faster and better than slower moving organizations.

    I’ve posted messages on Boxes and Arrows and other IT networking sites in the past because I feel that there is a huge opportunity that has not yet been maximized. There are more than 200 different volunteer-based tutoring and/or mentoring programs in the Chicago region. Each has a need to market itself and draw volunteers and donors; each has a need to find ways to use technology to support staff, volunteers and students, or create a learning environment where each member draws upon the resources of the network. Finally, each needs to find ways to demonstrate it’s impact, both from an internal process improvement purpose, and from an external goal of showing donors the value of the work.

    That means there is redundant work, and costs, built into this system. I feel that if IT volunteers, or networks, who share the same passion for a cause, were to take an intermediary, or capacity building role, they could help non profits throughout a geographic area, or a charity sector that is common in many cities, get volunteers, donors, training, etc. more consistently and at less cost, than can each of the volunteer organizations on their own.

    I’ve mapped out this thinking at and use my participation in social networking sites like this to invite others to duplicate this type of concept mapping, and/or volunteer time to help me in what I’m trying to do.

    Imagine if volunteers from Boxes and Arrows were creating concept maps to show how BBBS programs were connecting kids with mentors, and the result of this was ….what? Or that they were showing how other non profits were mobilizing resources, or building networks, to end hunger, or reduce teen pregnancy, or reduce poverty around inner city hospitals. Non profits can’t do this type of work on their own, but could benefit from groups like this using their talent to create blueprints of action strategies that others might follow.

  3. This is a great article, very helpful!
    Working with (and for) non-profits is always both gratifying and challenging… when anyone working on a project is passionate about the mission, opinions become difficult to manage – especially when they’re conflicting! Your point about IA’s being valuable to non-profits is very valid, because it’s so vital to always keep in mind the mindset of the outside audience visiting for the site for the first time with the intent to donate or volunteer. It’s so easy for marketing teams to get lost in other goals and needs of the site when working in an environment where money and resources are always limited.

  4. Thanks for opening this thread and sharing your experiences.

    In my work with not-for-profit organisations I have noticed: 1) the challenge of too many objectives, 2) under-capitalisation, 3) competitive pressures, and 4) built-in community.

    1) As you say, there are many stakeholders. Charities are often trying to reach a huge swath of people with greatly varied needs – from donors, to aid recipients, to sponsors, to scientific/professional audiences, and on. This can lead them to over-extend their strategy and to try to be all things for all those people. Focusing on what they can do well, and what the interactive media can do best is important, when there is no single bottom line. Sounds like you were helping them with the hard job of determining value.

    2) Like other organisations, not for profits want to use the internet for exciting things like social networking and efficiency improving things like web-based business processes. But designing and building these well can take time and money. Often not-for-profits often don’t have the resources to invest in doing this sort of thing well. And because of their economics, they tend to see building a web site (for example) as a cost, rather than an investment. That’s why Daniell’s call for cooperative efforts and shared resources makes sense.

    3) Unfortunately, not-for-profits can be as competitive as for-profits. Within a sector, they compete for donors, resources, members, etc. So finding a platform for sharing can be hard. Typically it seems to work for organisations of the same type that serve different geographies. Again, IAs and the like can help the organisations find who they can best serve and share with.

    4) Many not-for-profits have built in communities … they take to messaging, forums, and sharing very easily, and they provide access to people who will willingly and enthusiastically help test designs and development work.

    So, in some ways not-for’s are not dissimilar from other types of organisations, but they have unique challenges and opportunities that make them particularly interesting and rewarding to work with.

  5. Excellent article, Olga! It comes at a great time for me, too. I am just about to begin a volunteer project helping a local non-profit to redesign its site. I’ll definitely keep your points in mind.

    It’s awesome to see my friends popping up on the web. Good luck to you and the team at GHC!


  6. Thanks for your comments everyone!

    Keith: Your idea that the title of the article should read “Designing WITH Nonprofits” makes sense.

    Daniel: Thank you so much for sharing your map! You’re exactly right that if we were to analyze and map how whole areas of our society work we would better understand where the problems and benefits lie. Most importantly, we would understand where we need to make changes. Also, your comment– “Every challenge you mentioned is magnified in the small non profit because instead of farming out the work to paid contractors, we have to farm it out to volunteers.”– is not addressed here because all of the nonprofits I worked with were large national organizations. There is so much more that can be written on this subject.

    Alexandra: This is perfectly stated–”…it’s so vital to always keep in mind the mindset of the outside audience visiting for the site for the first time with the intent to donate or volunteer.”

    Avi: I’m so glad you included number three in your list–”3) Unfortunately, not-for-profits can be as competitive as for-profits. Within a sector, they compete for donors, resources, members, etc. So finding a platform for sharing can be hard. Typically it seems to work for organizations of the same type that serve different geographies. Again, IAs and the like can help the organizations find who they can best serve and share with.”–as it is important to note that nonprofits are competing for dollars from the same audience.

    BC: It’s great to hear from you. Thanks for your kind thoughts.

  7. Olga,
    Thanks for the interesting story. I’ve done several sites for small, local nonprofits. I’ve found a huge range in expectations – everything from tremendous gratitude for getting anything at all up and running to wild expectations about having everything they ever seen or even heard of built into their “free” site! As you point out, though, the key ingredient is the the mission, and therefore these sites are very information-focused, plus the capacity for making online contributions.
    My greatest satisfaction was learning that a major worldwide funding organization became interested in our cause in large part because of the website, and they were amazed to learn this was an all-volunteer effort.
    Let me add my thanks also to Daniel for that very interesting “mission map”!

  8. Great article. As someone who has worked with non-profits in an educational technology capacity, specifically as a producer of multimedia resources and websites for small to mid-size museums, I also find the incentives and challenges of working with non-profits equally compelling. At the moment, I am in the corporate sector because of the first issue Olga brought up – a non-profit’s cash reality. In a grant-funded position, work gigs were too short-lived, especially as funds got diverted into bricks and mortar projects (museum expansions). What I wanted to add to the discussion was the issue of sustainability and maintenance. For example, after creating an award-winning online interface for a collections management tool, there is currently little funding to keep the work going. And, it’s worthwhile work if winning the top award in its category from the American Association of Museums is any indication. Sigh. So, I find that the issues of sustainability and maintenace of designing/building technology for non-profits is another issue to tackle in the context of Olga’s article and its subsequent comments. Build it, love it, done is not the answer. As we all know, there is no “done” with technology projects, especially now with the desirability of integrating social networking features and user-generated-content (where appropriate). I think the problem of “done” thinking is also related to Olga’s point where she discusses how a single project gets chopped up into smaller parts, all vendored out to different groups. Ultimately, maintenance and sustainability isn’t really it’s own part, but needs to be built into the project plan, design and build all along.

  9. As one who is down in the trenches, your overview really touches home.
    I am an unpaid volunteer for a vastly underfunded mental health association in Erie, Pa; a city of only 100,000. We have self taught individuals willing to update and maintain our site but lack the expertise to design for the big picture; “balancing appropriate design with the emotion necessary to inspire”. Would it be possible, Olga, to list a few sites that your believe achieve this goal?

  10. Thanks for writing this article. I think there needs to be a lot of discussion about these differences within the technology and design community. What I find interesting is that it was an easy transition for you to work with nonprofits after having a forprofit career. As someone who has worked as the lead web strategist, content developer, marketer, designer, and campaigner I find it is difficult to transfer those skills to the forprofit environment.

    As the lead in developing websites and web campaigns, I have worked with the larger CMSs, and agree wholeheartedly that nonprofits believe that those investments will lead to more donors or members. The trouble is, that most do not have the resources/time or content creators/moderators to implement the tools.

    In your experience, what were the primary tools that helped you to “sell” good UX design to your nonprofit clients. And what of your forprofit experience were they most interested in learning about. Do you provide any competitive analysis, metrics analysis, mulitvariate testing etc. In my experience, it seems nonprofits respond more to data than to “creative” expertise.

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