Creatives & Nonprofits

Anyone who knows me will tell you I am a passionate person. I get excited about ideas, causes, and especially people. As a result I’ve had opportunities to do significant work with nonprofits over the years, from small, localized organizations to multinational operations. In that, I’ve noticed some recurring themes and issues between creative and non-profit. There is potential for some of the best and most meaningful creative work in this sector, and nonprofits stand to gain a great deal from excellent communication.

So I want to give both parties some practical, actionable steps and examples in what is sometimes a hard relationship.

For Nonprofits

The Setup

So you need a video, or a website, or photography, or a brochure. You call up a recommended creative. They ask you a series disjointed questions that have little to nothing to do with your organization, speak in abbreviations that have no meaning, and then send you an e-mail estimating that whatever it was they determined you wanted is going to put you out about $3000 more than you were intending to spend.

What just happened, and what can you do about it?

Hopefully the list here will help you head off these and other potential problems at the pass. Here we go.

1 — Articulate Your Needs and Limitations

Presumption is miscommunication. It is important to get as much relevant information and clarification on the table as possible. This includes what you are hoping for in a finished product, the goals of that finished product, your anticipated timeline for execution, as well as a realistic budget (more on this later).

Articulating each of these things will enable the creative to make a more accurate cost and time estimate, and not doing so will undoubtedly cost you down the line. A heads up: a good creative will hold you accountable to these things as well in order to protect themselves from being used. Working together on clearly articulated goals and dates is an important point from which mutual respect can be established.

2 — Learn Some Key Basics

What you don’t know can hurt you. As you enter into a creative project, it is in your best interest to learn some key basics.

  • Get a feel for the range of rates. If you are anticipating spending $500 on a project, where the going hourly rate is $120, you won’t get very far. Basic shopping around should bring some perspective.
  • Creativity takes time. The truism goes, “Cheap. Good. Fast. Pick two.” In other words, try to work on a realistic timetable early on to avoid disappointment down the road.
  • Ask lots of questions. Creatives often speak in other languages, and forget to ask you, the client, about important things. Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions. They make you a smarter client in the end.

3 — Trust Your Creative

The goal of all of these steps is to move toward a place where you can trust the creative to do what they do best: be creative. If you can clearly articulate your goals and limitations the creative will have a framework in which to work freely. It’s in this kind of environment that excellent work can happen.

While it may feel like a risk, this trust is crucial to accomplishing real, meaningful communication between your organization and the people you are trying to reach.

For Creatives

The Setup

You get a call from a non-profit saying they need a video, or a new website, or some photography, or a brochure. They direct you to their current website. Ouch. They don’t need a web-vid-brochure-agraph, they need a complete media makeover. You explain to them what it will take to make the project work–maybe developing some additional graphic assets, on-location shooting, editing, SEO or research etc. You send them a reasonable, nay even modest proposal. When they call back (if they call back) you can hear the quiver of shock in their voice.

What just happened, and what can you do about it?

Hopefully the list here will help you head off these and other potential problems at the pass. Here we go.

1 — Be Genuinely Interested

This may sound tricky but it’s important. Nonprofits are more often than not rooted in passion. If you don’t much care for the cause the nonprofit is based on, it might not be the best working situation.

That said, it is not necessary that you be personally passionate about the cause either. Your distance might give some much needed perspective in the creative process (more on this later). Thus I choose the term genuinely interested. By and large, the individuals who are passionate will see and resonate with an attitude that recognizes and appreciates their special interest.

One of the best ways to show this is by active listening asking questions, and saying what you are hearing back to the client. For example, What I’m hearing you say is that you want people to understand these core values through a visual…

2 — Conciliatory But Not Compromising

Nonprofit means just that, and oftentimes organizations feel and/or are more restricted in how they spend their money. Again, awareness is half the battle. Coming into a conversation with the foreknowledge that cost is going to be a primary concern gives you the opportunity to speak directly to it.

That being said, what you say should articulate the value of creative work and set realistic budgetary expectations. Driving down the cost below operational levels hurts everyone: yourself, the project, the client and other creatives. When work is devalued, quality deteriorates and creatives aren’t able to sustain work.

This requires the hard work of knowing your own needs and worth. Learning your value in the market is crucial to surviving long term in creative fields, and essential to do truly good work.

3 — Think Outside The Box

The goal of connecting with and hearing clearly the nonprofit clients vision and ensuring your time is adequately compensated is to allow you to do what you do best: be creative. Having those boundaries gives you a clear structure within which to work freely. Gray areas tend to work as inhibitors in the creative process, whereas known limitations can become a framework.


I hope this basic summary from experience is able to engender in some small way a stronger and more understanding relationship between creatives and nonprofits. I believe there is a natural and mutually beneficial tie between these two groups, both centered in the desire to help shape a better and more beautiful world.