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Diary of a Social Venture Start-up: Design and Branding

The face of the philanthropist is changing. The people making a difference aren't just the stereotypical elderly benefactors....


The face of the philanthropist is changing. The people making a difference aren't just the stereotypical elderly benefactors. They're creative people, business people, Apple people, Obama people, working-class people-change is coming from all over.And as the identity of the humanitarian changes, so, too, must the identity of the cause. But how? As technology continues to make communicating with the masses and soliciting donations exponentially easier, how will organizations stand out among the crowd? How can they capture the interest of these young, hungry change agents?Many nonprofits are taking a bit of a cue from for-profit industries, focusing on design and branding to help promote their causes. Because frankly, it's not just about the message; it's about the marketing. So what does that mean for social entrepreneurs? It means paying attention to details that many nonprofits seem to find extraneous, like design and branding. It also means you should hire a professional designer. Your website, your marketing efforts, your brochures, even your business cards can play an integral role in how you're viewed by donors, by backers, and by the public at large. Sound ridiculous? Maybe it is. But it's also true.Love it or hate it, you are selling a product: your cause. And while helping change the world is certainly more valuable (and, hopefully, more gratifying) than buying a toaster, you're fighting for the consumers' attention nonetheless, and you're battling for their trust.This trust is especially important with nonprofits because, unlike with consumer goods, the "buyer" here isn't really getting anything other than a warm fuzzy feeling (and a tax break) in return. For this reason, everything from the literature to the letterhead of your organization needs to play a role in conveying that your cause is professional and worthwhile, and maybe even cool.More and more, this idea of being worthwhile seems to be tied to having a novel approach. People are fed up with established ways of how things are done (remember the Generation M Manifesto?). It seems to me that as our notion of philanthropy evolves, so should our ideas about promotion.During the last Jerry Lewis telethon, comedian Jeffrey Ross joked on his Twitter page that a 7-year-old kid got out of his wheelchair and walked for the first time just to turn off the television. He was kidding, but he was onto something. Some of the old methods of brand-building and fundraising are starting to seem a little, well, old.It's a concept that hasn't gone unnoticed by some in the nonprofit realm. We're seeing, to some degree at least, a change in approach. The sob stories and "for just pennies a day" language are being replaced by modern logos, slick web interfaces, and innovative approaches to storytelling.My favorite example, by far, is a promotional video for The Girl Effect, an organization dedicated to helping empower young females in the developing world. When I first saw this video a year ago, I showed it to everyone I knew. Not only does the video do away with the traditional "needy case" photography, it removes people and photography altogether. Typography, music, and fantastic editing combine to produce a piece that is informative, engaging, and-most important-compelling as hell. As I sat down to write this article, I watched it again. Just as it did the first time, it gave me chills. Watch it here.The Takeaway: Design and branding matter. Regardless of its mission, your organization is also a brand, and while style might not be more important than substance, it certainly cannot be ignored.So here's my question: What captures your attention? Have you been intrigued by any innovative methods of fundraising or are pledge drives and bike-a-thons still the gold standard of good? Who's doing a great job of getting the word out?