by Heather West
Originally published in the November/December 2003 issue of HOW Magazine
Karen Handelman wanted to change the world. By choosing to design for clients in the nonprofit sector, her firm tackles work she believes in and serendipitously positioned itself for success in a tough economy.
In 1994, Karen Handelman quit her job as a successful senior graphic designer for corporate giant Andersen Consulting in Chicago. “I had a great boss. I liked my coworkers. I liked what I did. But the work itself — the business of computers and software — didn’t interest me much,” she says. “One day in the office, my friend summed up what I was feeling: ‘If we were only saving the whales, this would be a great job.’”
Touched by the spirit of creativity, designers are too often motivated by more than profit, giving back to their communities through pro-bono work and charitable contributions. But how can you save the world and still pay the bills? Handelman decided to ask a different question: If you can’t change the whole world, can you at least change your client’s world?
While many firms elect to specialize in Web, publication or identity design, Handelman founded 501creative to specialize in nonprofit clients. As retail, manufacturing, travel and technology markets continue to struggle in the slow economy, Handelman’s heartfelt instinct has proven to be a wise decision as the need for social services, health care and education continues to grow.
Leap of Faith
Before starting 501, Handelman and her husband, Marc Hirshman, took a detour and decided to join the Peace Corps. In spite of their commitment, she says, “The Corps didn’t need a designer and a lawyer.” Instead, the recruiter encouraged the couple to pursue other long-term volunteer service. They selected Habitat for Humanity, an ecumenical Christian ministry dedicated to eliminating poverty through housing.
“I took a year’s leave from Andersen, and we put our stuff into storage,” Handelman recalls. “All we had was a car and some clothes.” The couple drove to Habitat’s headquarters in Georgia for training. From there, they were sent to a field office in Charlotte, NC, where they met up with students, seniors and individuals like themselves. “We coordinated hundreds of volunteers that arrived every Saturday to build a house and helped them have a good time doing it,” Handelman says.
The experience made Handelman consider giving up her design career to pursue a degree in nonprofit management. “I kept thinking that here should be some way to combine my background in design with my love for nonprofits.”
It was during this time that she glimpsed her future. Handelman explains, “Habitat in Charlotte had what they thought was a great relationship with a design firm that did free work for them. The projects, however, had no deadlines, Habitat wasn’t thrilled with the end products, and the pieces weren’t very successful.
“I kept wondering whether they’d rather pay for appropriate work than keep struggling with free stuff. I started realizing how nonprofits need to communicate and want to be taken seriously as clients, just as much as for-profit organizations. Too often, designers think pro-bono work should mean, ‘Do whatever you want. The nonprofits will print it, and you can have a nice portfolio piece.’ But inappropriate work isn’t what anyone needs. And unfortunately, the inconsistent nature of pro-bono work leads to inconsistent communications.”
Focusing on Nonprofits
After completing her Habitat commitment, Handelman spent several months interviewing professionals in the nonprofit sector. Returning home to St. Louis in 1995, she hung out a shingle as 501creative—a reference to the 501c designation given to nonprofit organizations by the Internal Revenue Service.
“Before I went out on my own, I always said I wouldn’t do so without knowing who I was going to do work for. Now, we call that specializing. Once I discovered the nonprofit world, it was an easy decision for me. I’ve watched colleagues specialize in other areas that interest them—retail, small business, food/restaurant, annual reports, etc. There are so many areas to specialize in; you just have to figure out what works best for you, which one turns you on. You can’t be good at everything—figure out what you do well and you’ll be successful,” she advises.
“If you tell potential clients you can do it all, they won’t believe you anyway,” she continues. “Specialization allows you to become an expert at a few things instead of being just average at a lot of things. I’m amazed at how many firms and freelancers try to be everything to everyone. For me, it was an obvious way to know who to target. Now, I realize it was a great business decision.”
That first year, Handelman says she was too busy to think about a business plan or how to separate work and home. By the second year, she knew she needed to find help. Moving from a home office with one employee, she hired another and leased a small office space— 700sq.ft., four offices, a conference room, no windows.
In spite of the challenges of infrastructure and staff, Handelman says the business grew quickly. “My sister was one of my first clients, and the local hospital she worked for remains a client,” she says. Her mothers’ employer, the Jewish Center for the Aged, also became a client that led to many more. “Although I had no serious marketing efforts in place, someone would say to a client, ‘I like that piece. Who did it?’ and I’d get a call.
Handelman says early on she was concerned her work might be getting too focused. “For a while, I worried that I’d be branded as the Jewish designer because a lot of my clients were within the Jewish community. I was very excited when a Catholic organization called. I knew I had arrived.”
To Serve and Protect
With a focus on nonprofit clients, the 501 name spread rapidly through St. Louis. “Clients love the fact that we work exclusively with nonprofits,” she says. “They know that we’re not going to push their job aside when Anheuser-Busch comes knocking. They know that we’re used to limited budgets and that we’re not offering pro-bono work as a way to do something crazy for our portfolio.”
Handelman’s commitment has been validated by an expanding workload, as well as by the Community Service Public Relations Council, a local club for nonprofit communicators. Entering their annual competition, 501creative received a significant share of the awards as judged by leading representatives of the nonprofit community—many of whom were clients and prospective clients.
As a past president of AIGA/St. Louis, Handelman also values the connections she’s made within her own profession. But, when asked if she’s pursued recognition within the design industry, Handelman responds, “I’ve found design shows are for designers to pat each other on the back. Clients don’t go to design shows. They go to their own industry events, so we try to stay involved as members in their organizations.”
While most of their association involvement centers around local groups, 501creative’s work reaches national audiences thanks in large part to its clients. “Word-of-mouth has really kept things busy,” Handelman notes enthusiastically.
For example, at the annual conference of Jewish Family Educators, a St. Louis member talks with a New York City member and, soon, Handelman’s phone rings again. The Missouri Forestry Council meets with other states’ departments to present its Anti Tree Topping campaign. Before long, Handelman is contacted to develop materials for the Washington state effort.
Handelman prizes such referrals. “It’s not competition to them,” she says. “They see it as helping each other out.” Still, it requires constant vigilance to ensure that nonprofits don’t give away their design in the misguided spirit of collaboration or have their identity misused by an uninformed partner. “We’re always educating, trying to protect our work on a national level,” she says.
To assist the organizations in preserving their own creative equity and cohesive messages, as well as its own work, 501creative includes a line in its contract that allows the firm to retain control of electronic files. Recently, Handelman has helped her clients stretch this line item and offered them more hands-on management over digital media.
“Generally speaking, nonprofits aren’t very savvy technically, so we’re frequently designing to specific software that’s comfortable for the in-house support team to use. For instance, we’ll design the Web site and provide them with a template that they can update without messing it up.”
She adds, “There’ enough work out there for us to keep the conceptual work and let go of the production. If a client wants to manage the printing bids, then we simply add an hourly line of print coordination rather than wrapping the whole thing together as one project cost.”
Yet Handelman also knows that project-based budgeting appeals to her clients. “If they see hourly charges in an estimate, such as for cleaning up photography, they can really freak out. Mind you, we keep our hourly rates low, but clients are much better able to fit into their overall budgets if they see a total project estimate.”
Doing Well by Doing Good
Even the most affordable estimates remain negotiable, especially in this economic climate. Because of the trust that 501creative’s clients have developed in the firm, they seek out the design staff’s advice not only on the best creative solution, but also on creative methods of cutting costs without cutting out whole projects. Always considering its clients’ fears and challenges, 501 recently offered a free consultation to customers anxious about budget cuts.
“The nonprofit market never had extravagant budgets, so there really isn’t much to cut if they’re going to have any marketing or fundraising presence—even in a down economy,” Handelman explains. “Many of our clients have had budget cuts, but we’re finding that those cuts often make our relationships with them stronger because they need to figure out the best ways to spend the dollars they do have. Sure, projects have changed, but few have disappeared.”
Guiding its clients through tough times, 501creative arrived at such cost-effective solutions as reducing a publication’s trim size by 1/4 in. to save money through more efficient printing, finding lighter paper to reduce postage costs or eliminating printed newsletters in favor of electronic distribution. Not only focused on reduction, Handelman’s team also suggests strategic opportunities for growth.
“The nonprofit sector is competitive as ever,” she says. “Organizations are fighting for dollars and need to convince donors that their cause and their organization is the best place to allocate those dollars. There’s still a lot of need.”
This empathetic passion endears 501creative to its clients. Laura Gyawali, communications coordinator at Barnes-Jewish Hospital (BJH) Foundation in St. Louis elaborates: “What’s special about Karen and her firm is that they always look at it from our audiences’ points-of-view and understand what’s important to them. They constantly think about the message we’re trying to send. They know that if we’re talking to donors, we may not want to look too flashy or too expensive.”
After their success with BJH Foundation’s bi-annual and quarterly magazines, Gyawali turned to 501creative for the Foundation’s annual report. “We’ve always blown a donation envelope into the annual reports, but the year Karen’s firm took over the design, we received a lot more gifts because it looked so much better.”
At a recent Bark in the Park fundraiser for the Humane Society of Missouri, special events coordinator Sara McGinnis says there was an overwhelming response to 501creative’s three dog mascot illustrations that appear on all the event brochures, posters and T-shirts. “Anytime we want to present something nice for the public, we turn to them,” McGinnis says. “They handle almost all of our graphic design. They understand how to work within our strict parameters and budgets to deliver the image we want to project.”
Covenant Seminary, a local graduate theological school, considers 501creative an extension of its own team. Publications editor Eileen O’Gorman explains: “We don’t have a full-time graphic designer on staff, so 501creative really has become our partner. Because they work with nonprofits, it helps that they know I’m not just whining when I tell them, ‘Look, we don’t have a huge budget for this.’ In spite of these limitations, I feel we’ve been able to accomplish a lot.”
In two short years, 501creative has guided the seminary through a brand-identity makeover, an 80-page course catalog, brochures, a Web-site template, a quarterly magazine, a newsletter and more. “They had to start from scratch, but there’s a domino effect when your identity changes: Everything needs to be redone in order to get our message across in a uniform way,” O’Gorman says. “As a writer, I want the words to be guarded, treasured. 501creative treats those words with respect and presents them in a way that people can see, feel and be drawn in to.”
Well-designed brand identity seems to be a key need among many nonprofits. St. Louis-based Parents as Teachers National Center worked with a combination of small agencies and freelancers before finding 501creative. Marking communications director Pat Simpson says that the firm’s specialty allows the organization to manage its image and its costs, while serving more than 3,000 local program sites around the world. “I don’t feel I’m getting a sales pitch when we discuss our branding issues,” Simpson says. “If they aren’t a good fit for a particular project, they’re the first to say so. They’re very dedicated and it shows.”
Handelman says that, beyond dedication, it’s specialization and special people that have made her firm successful. “We have the same education and experience as creatives at other design firms, but we also have the desire to better our community. That’s what drives us, what makes us love our jobs and what makes our work unique,” she says. “We know that our efforts make a difference.”