So you want to design for nonprofits? Here’s how to actually make that work
“All of us have a desire to do good in the world. Kind of an ethical lifestyle. We care about stuff. We care about people, we love people. That’s the motivation behind this. And we just also happen to be really good at websites and designing stuff. So we wanted to combine the two.”
That’s Bryan Monzon, lead developer at Fifty & Fifty, a creative studio that builds websites for nonprofits. Monzon joined founder Javan Van Gronigen at the company a few months after its launch in 2009. “I was a wee little designer then,” he recalled. Since then, he’s helped grow Fifty & Fifty into a 10-person agency able to sustain a focus on nonprofit clients.
“Five years ago, it was just a little idea,” Monzon said. “Could this actually work, being focused on the nonprofit sector? Could this be a successful business? With a few restrictions, yes, it’s totally possible.”
Your agency is not a nonprofit.
Though everyone on staff has a heart for nonprofit work — Van Gronigen was the art director at Invisible Children for three years, for example, and Monzon has frequently volunteered in Thailand — Fifty & Fifty is not a nonprofit itself. “I think it was sort of assumed at the beginning that we just couldn’t be,” Monzon said. “For as much work as it takes to get these things up off the ground… pro bono is good for the right situation, but the amount of work that goes into it, I can’t see it being sustainable. Unless there’s some kind of investor. That’s the only way, and people aren’t writing a lot of those checks.”
Instead, Fifty & Fifty’s for-profit business model allows the agency to focus on a specific passion: getting compelling stories online, with high-quality design, for organizations doing ethically defensible work.
“There are stories that you can tell that influence people who choose to care,” Monzon said, “but don’t choose to be in those places. We can bring that experience via design and good story. We can bridge that gap.”
Being a for-profit business also means Fifty & Fifty isn’t held to the restrictions imposed on nonprofits, such as who gets a salary and how funds are used.
Find a sustainable business plan.
Monzon suggested that Fifty & Fifty has already discounted its hourly rates to what it would cost to keep their doors open and still have quality design and development. “When you compare us to the big companies, it’s probably half of what they’re earning.”
Even at a discounted rate, Monzon said that the agency still has a budget range requirement. “I’d like to make that range bigger, but we’re still figuring that out. So we work with the bigger organizations that can afford a little bit more,” he said. “There are so many nonprofits out there that don’t have budgets and rely on goodwill, and that just doesn’t work for us. It doesn’t make for powerful stories or products.”
However, that doesn’t mean Fifty & Fifty has to work only with the giants in the field. “There are different levels of nonprofits,” Monzon explained. For example, the Multiple Sclerosis Society pulls in millions upon millions a year. On the other side of the coin is Plant with Purpose, a tiny company that does its fair share, has been around a while, and does a lot of good work.
To handle this scope of requirements and resources, the agency utilizes an equally broad scope of solutions. For smaller clients, Fifty & Fifty can simplify the process. “Thanks to some of our guys who are excellent in WordPress, we can make it for them really cheap and really quick,” Monzon said. “Using plugins that are out there and being smart about it, we’re able to do a lot.”
WordPress’ claim to fame is that it works right out of the box, which Monzon said is perfect for a client on a $500 budget. “You can get a theme, get hosting, a couple premium plugins, and you’re off and running with fantastic work.”
Clients who want a custom theme are the next level up. “Then I might work with a freelancer that doesn’t have the overhead that an agency does,” Monzon said. “You can take an existing theme, child-theme it, and make things how you want it, still using the existing structure.”
Then there’s agency level. “You’re going to get the full service. We can do content strategy, we can do design, we’ll do your development, you have project managers, account managers, front-end developers, back-end developers — you don’t just have this all-in-one person working from their own tool kit.”
Work conservatively and efficiently.
No matter the tier, Monzon said the best tip he can offer any studio contemplating a focus on nonprofit work is to know your tools and be efficient.
“We run on such tight margins that we track our time,” he said. “It helps us be more efficient with what the client needs and what we can offer. I can also build things differently or spend less time over here.”
No project is alike, but Fifty & Fifty starts each one down the same path. “We take in an RFP — if they’re in the budget range, we’ll take a look at it and do some roadmapping. We have index cards all over the walls — our walls are covered. It’s quite ridiculous. But it sets expectations. ‘This is what we think you want, is this what you want?’”
Then the scalpel comes out. “We whittle down what they need,” Monzon said. “We’re not in this to make a huge profit, but there’s a cost tied to it, and there is a profit that needs to be made so we can be sustainable. We’ll say it’s gonna take 237 hours to do what you want — you’ve budgeted 200. What’s your priority?”
If a client can’t afford something, Monzon is quick to point out that’s okay. “We can build things now or we can space things out. What can we do to still make that a viable project for them? We can identify what’s important and then we can put a couple things on the back burner. If there are hours for them later, we can revisit them.”
He estimates hours to be on the safe side. “Then if I get two hours left over, great, I’ll put that toward something else.” If the opposite happens and there’s no more time, then “sometimes we have a difficult conversation.” And sometimes that means eating the hours because it was something the agency promised the client.
The lesson here is be flexible on your timeline but not on money. “Don’t undersell yourself,” Monzon emphasized. “Nonprofits are looking for the work to be done and to the same expectations as if they were a for-profit. It’s not worth it if you don’t know your tools, if you don’t know what you’re doing, to just go out there and promise things to people and not be able to follow through. It leaves a bad taste in their mouth.”
In other words, don’t be the agency that builds something for free and then doesn’t support it. “A lot of clients out there are willing to pay, and they want to pay, because they want to hold you to an expectation. So make sure you have enough to survive off of.”
Be purposeful about the clients you want.
Fifty & Fifty doesn’t exactly have a list of criteria for potential clients to meet, but the sales team does a bit of research nonetheless. “We look at past things that they’ve done. We’ve done a few projects with World Vision, and we believe they’re doing good work,” Monzon said. “There are kids being saved, in terms of health, nutrition, people are getting clean water, they’re getting AIDS prevention. We’ll look at those things. Plants with Purpose doesn’t just come in and say they have the answer, they work with the communities. They’re not in there to raise the flag and solve all the problems. They’re there to be a support and a helping hand. We’re aware of stuff like that.”
Monzon said that a telltale sign of a nonprofit doing good work is how particular they are about their percentages for where money goes. “There are probably moments where we question something, but for the most part we trust who we work with,” he said. “I think most people are good. I think most organizations work really, really hard.”
Very occasionally, Fifty & Fifty will take on for-profit companies — if they take on a lot in a community, if they’re ethically defensible, if they help people be more efficient and have fewer costs. “If they’re socially trying to make a difference,” Monzon summarized. “We have very few of those, but we don’t have a hard and fast line.”
Be aware of challenges that are unique to working with nonprofits.
While Fifty & Fifty usually receives payment directly from its nonprofit clients, very occasionally a project pops up with unique funding, such as grant money that requires specific invoicing. “We don’t hit that roadblock a lot,” Monzon said again, “and there’s a lot of trust involved. That’s more than enough for us to keep moving forward on work.”
Most of the challenges come in the form of — surprise, surprise — communication. “For example, we don’t do wireframing anymore. Our designers will use something like InVision, because clients may not understand what a wireframe is, whereas someone at a for-profit might: ‘I know it’s not just going to be a box with an x in it.’” Utilizing tools and apps that allow for easy communication helps Fifty & Fifty make sure clients’ expectations are realistic. “That’s important in any business, but more so for nonprofits,” Monzon pointed out. “You have people that may or may not be as experienced.”
Sometimes communication is tough. “A lot of times, people in the nonprofit world will not understand the word no,” Monzon said. “You just have to be diligent with it. ‘Your budget is x, and this costs y. We will go over budget, we will go over timeline.’ Just being very stern and being able to communicate in those ways — that’s huge.” Of course, being that firm means you have to resign yourself to not landing a client sometimes. “We had to be okay with missing out on some really cool projects because we have to do what’s right for us and not allow ourselves to be walked on.”
Hire people who can keep your mission in perspective.
According to Monzon, Fifty & Fifty is hyper conscious that money from a nonprofit comes with a bit of extra weight. Having a staff that appreciates that difference is key to producing quality work on a budget.
“A lot of times when we hire new people, I’m like, this is how it works,” Monzon said. “You have to view every hour you’re spending like it’s an 8-year-old’s entire day at his lemonade stand so he can donate money to the cancer society. The time that I spend is not just some organization’s money. It’s donations. It’s hard work. There’s a lot behind that dollar bill. That’s a motivating factor.”
The goal, he continued, is to be aware that the agency makes cool stuff based on decisions that don’t waste an 8-year-old’s hard-earned donation. “Looking at it from that perspective, it brings you down to earth. This isn’t Nike, this isn’t TaylorMade Golf.”
It takes a special staff to keep that perspective at the forefront of a business’ focus. “We’ve learned our lesson the hard way as well,” Monzon said. “There are people that just enjoy being developers, and then there are people that enjoy being good people. I’ve even said I care far less about the talent than I do about the heart of the person we’re hiring. It’s easy to be allured by someone’s gifts. But if they’re a pain in the ass, and they don’t really care? It’s easy to hire the wrong fit, which is bad for any company, but it goes extra for ours.”
Money is never the motivation. “I want to be dependable, and I know that people rely on a website being up. It comes down to integrity and what you’re passionate about. Otherwise, we’re just building websites for another business, and there’s no point.”