by Kathie Sutin, Special to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch February 20, 2004
Named after a section of the IRS code, 501creative serves many prominent St. Louis groups after turning pro bono work into a business.
Karen Handelman got two responses when she considered forming a company that would help nonprofit organizations to communicate their messages.
“Some people said: ‘That’s a great idea. I can’t believe no one has done it before. But how will you make money?’” she said. “Other people said: ‘That’s a silly idea. You’ll never make money.’”
Still, she decided to forge ahead.
Handelman had been doing a lot of pro bono marketing and design for nonprofits, and her sister worked for one then. “So, I knew what kinds of projects there were. I knew what the potential was.”
She began her career as a graphic designer at a large corporation in Chicago. There, she learned about hiring and managing people and projects. “It was a great experience,” she said.
When her husband, Marc Hirshman, graduated from law school, the couple spent 13 months with Habitat for Humanity. Then, in 1995, they moved to St. Louis, her hometown, where she opened a graphic-design and communications business. The result is 501creative Inc., a reference to the section of tax law that governs nonprofit organizations.
Though her goal was to work only with nonprofits, she didn’t set that limit initially.
Her first job - an invitation for an organization trying to recruit volunteers - came through a connection with her sister.
From there, the business took off.
For about 18 months, she worked from the back bedroom of her apartment. Now, her staff has grown to seven people occupying a house in Clayton.
The company has added Web design to its services, and it maintains sites for clients or teaches clients how to maintain them.
With the recent addition of Maryanne Dersch, a community-relations specialist, 501 offers communications planning and community-relations service.
The firm’s clients include the Humane Society of Missouri, Salvation Army, Jewish Center for Aged, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Black Repertory Co., Circus Flora, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Central Reform Congregation, Council of Lutheran Churches, Danforth Foundation, and Webster Groves Chamber of Commerce.
Handelman said her company sometimes works with established clients that don’t project that image. “Their materials have not grown with them,” she said.
“They’re looking to get a little more polished, a little more professional. In the old days - even only 15 years ago - it was OK if nonprofits looked kind of shabby, because then people said: ‘Oh, they’re just a poor nonprofit. I’ll give them money.’ Now, it’s more competitive. They have to look like they’re spending dollars wisely, and they have to look like they know what they’re doing. Looking professional is actually a benefit to them.”
Handelman’s experience working with nonprofits has made her sensitive to budget issues.
For example, 501 recently did the online annual report for Boys Hope Girls Hope, a national organization that helps at-risk teenagers. The group needed an annual report, but its budget was limited. Handelman suggested sending postcards to everyone on the group’s mailing list, directing them to the online report. Boys Hope Girls Hope saved thousands of dollars in printing and mailing costs.
Peggy Slater, national director of organizational advancement for the agency, said that she was skittish about the idea initially but that she’s thrilled with the results.
“It was our first annual report. I was very hesitant to make a major investment in paper but, at the same time, really felt the report was important,” Slater said. “They really gave us a lot of different ideas.”
She said Handelman’s company helped to “pull together a coherent marketing message for our next fiscal year.”
Handelman’s company created a Web site for the local agency and later designed a Web site template for other cities where the agency is located. “That made it possible for me to establish a kind of national brand image and be able to do it in a cost-effective way for our entire network,” Slater said.
The firm works with nonprofits of various sizes. “We actually work for organizations that have no staff; they’re just run by a board of directors. Others have large staffs,” Handelman said.
She credits her first job in Chicago with providing experience in working with budgets and organizing projects.
“It just made sense to me that every project has a job number and every client has a code, and there’s a way for us to always find old projects,” she said.
Handelman’s biggest surprise was the amount of time she spends on the business side, compared with the creative side.
“I heard those stories about company presidents who don’t have time to do the work anymore. I always thought, ‘That won’t be me,’” she said. “But I find a lot of my time goes to dealing with personnel issues, payroll and accounting.”