Design Equity: Stand Out From the Crowd

People are bombarded with branded communication. Make sure yours is unique to your organization.

Sarah Obenauer
Make a Mark
Published in
6 min readMar 28, 2018


This is part three of the Design Equity project. Want to catch up? Check out part one and part two now.

Let’s talk numbers. The average person sees up to 5,000 branded communications a day! 5,000! A day! How are you supposed to stand out from the crowd with those numbers?

Clean, unique design is key to making your organization’s message stick. You can read more about this in part two, Design Equity: First Impressions are Everything.

Today we are going to take a step back and talk about how to keep your branded communications unique to your organization. This begins with your internal brand and evolves from there.

Purpose + Language


A trap that many organizations fall into is creating long, vague mission statements with too much fluff or industry jargon. Many nonprofits have mission statements that all sound the same and don’t seem to mean anything at all.

This is an easy problem to have whether you are trying to appease a grant monitor, creating a mission statement with a large committee or simply trying to copy similar organizations. Luckily, it is also an easy problem to solve!

Sit down and ask yourself — why? Why does this organization exist?

Other questions to consider:

  • What is your cause? What are you fighting for or against?
  • What is your impact? Who are you helping?
  • Why do you do what you do? What makes you happy to get up in the morning?
  • How do you do what you do? What services and programs do you offer?
  • What do you do exactly? In what ways are you unique?

Once you have authentic answers to these questions, you will be able to craft the story that you tell on your website, blog, social media and more.

Photos courtesy of The Silver Banner from the 2017 Chattanooga Make-a-Thon

Core Values

These are less common in nonprofit organizations, but can be just as important as they are for corporations. These support your vision and mission and shape your culture.

Core values are terms that reflect who your organization is today and what qualities you want to hold onto as you grow and evolve. Core values should drive your decisions and show your unique attributes.

The following core values exercise is something we have done in the past with nonprofits and is a way to get to know your organization even better.

Core values exercise:

  • As a group, identify a handful of individuals in your organization that are perfect examples of who you are. These can be staff, board members, volunteers, interns or anyone engaged with the organization.
  • Start telling stories about those individuals, why they are important to the organization, why you admire them, etc.
  • Identify what values and principles drive the behaviors in those stories. This could be generosity, fierceness, authenticity, etc. Write these on a whiteboard or flip chart where everyone can see them.
  • Circle the values that you want to keep and mark out those that you want to remove. This will likely be a lengthy discussion. You should determine between 4 and 8 core values.

It is important to visualize your core values in your office so you can revisit them at any point. Whether this is on decals on the walls, a poster or even a small print out for each person to keep on their desk. Core values only drive action if you remember what they are.

Photos courtesy of Jessica Harvey from the 2018 NYC Make-a-Thon


Brand character is something that is often lost or forgotten. It is easy to dismiss it when you’re fighting to save lives and improve your community. But your brand character is what will help you stick out.

Figuring out your brand character and putting into action is incredibly exciting and invigorating for everyone invested in your organization. Consider the questions below to navigate your organization’s character. Remember that the questions below refer to your organization if it was a person, and not you as an individual or your audience members.

Sample character questions:

  • If you met him/her/they at a party, what is he/she/they like?
  • At this party, what is he/she/they wearing?
  • Where would he/she/they sit in a room, toward the front or toward the back?
  • What does he/she/they do on the weekend?
  • Where does he/she/they prefer to travel?
  • If he/she/they were a car, what kind of car would he/she/they be? Sporty, practical, etc.

You can continue to elaborate on these questions and add your own. Once you’re done, give the person a name and keep their information readily available so you can refer to it when planning your communication strategy.

Another fantastic exercise is to determine a set of adjectives that describes your organization. These are different than core values, because your core values are internal, and these adjectives should be the personality you are projecting to the world. Consider purchasing a Brand Deck for only $20 to help with this process. We don’t start a branding project without one!

Photos courtesy of The Silver Banner from the 2017 Chattanooga Make-a-Thon


Navigating your different audiences as a nonprofit can be tricky. You likely have very diverse audiences that you are appealing to including those you are looking to support, volunteers, individual donors or large donors like foundations.

You will likely need to use different language, imagery and even communication channels to reach those different audiences. The best way to start navigating this world is to build out personas for your audiences.

Sample audience persona questions:

  • What are his/her/they demographics? Age, sexual identity, job, income, etc.
  • What are his/her/their pain points or challenges? What is keeping this person from engaging with your organization?
  • What are the benefits that your organization will offer to him/her/they?
  • How will he/she/they find out about your organization? Word of mouth, social media, newspaper, other?
  • What devices does he/she/they use? Mobile phone only?
  • In regard to your organization or problem that you are attempting to solve: The audience sees? The audience thinks? The audience believes?

Once you’re done, give each persona a name and keep their information readily available so you can refer to it when planning your communication strategy.

Photos courtesy Megan Dodds from the 2017 Roanoke — Blacksburg Make-a-Thon (left) + The Silver Banner from the 2017 Chattanooga Make-a-Thon (right)


Capturing your purpose + language, character and audience are essential first steps to determining your aesthetic. Hopefully by now you have a grasp of who you are internally, as well as what you want to project to the world.

One way to nail your aesthetic is to start with a mood board. Mood boards are compilations of inspiration and ideas when branding your organization, starting a website project or anything else related to design.

Mood boards can be digital or physical and contain anything from fonts that you like and colors that speak to your work, to textured materials and packaging that inspires you. They help you determine which distinct design aspects you appreciate to help craft a unique visual identity that doesn’t simply copy what already exists.

Sample mood boards

Ready for the next step? Check out these 10 easy design tips for non-designers or apply for a make-a-thon.

Interested in learning more about Make a Mark or the Design Equity project? To stay up to date, subscribe to the newsletter or send an email to



Sarah Obenauer
Make a Mark

Founder & Director of Make a Mark. Passionate about using design, creativity, and technology to serve our world.