Fishing for Meaning in the Work Place, Karen Handelman
Figures Out How to Use Creativity to Benefit Community
by Liz Braun
Originally published in the St. Louis Business Journal October 26, 2001
Karen Handelman decided she didn’t have to choose between a career and community service.
“After I finished school and had worked for a few years, I began thinking about my professional direction,” Handelman says. “A co-worker and I said that we liked our jobs and our colleagues, and it would all be perfect if we were saving the whales.
“So, after a little while, I knew that I had to find the whales.”
Handelman, 34, is the founder of 501creative, a Clayton graphic design firm whose mission is to bring excellence and creativity to the communications of community-minded organizations.
In 1989, she finished a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, with an emphasis on graphic design, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and moved to Chicago. She spent a year at a medium-size commercial art company, then worked at Andersen Consulting for three and a half years.
“It was about then that I started examining my choices and where I was headed,” she says.
At that same time, Handelman’s husband, Marc Hirshman, was finishing up law school, and both decided they wanted to devote some time strictly to community service.
“Initially, we began with the Peace Corps, but it was soon apparent that they didn’t really need a lawyer and a graphic designer,” Handelman says. “But they didn’t want to squash our interest in volunteering and connected us with Habitat for Humanity.”
That connection turned out to be a good fit for Handelman. She and Hirshman spent just over a year volunteering full-time with the organization. For the first three months, they were based in Americus, Ga., working on the building team and developing a report on substandard housing in the area. After that, they spent 10 months in Charlotte, NC., leading volunteers on building sites.
The year with Habitat taught Handelman two lessons.
“It taught me how I like to volunteer,” she says. “I prefer to be immersed in the experience because it helps me to truly understand the issue.”
“I also discovered the world of non-profit organizations from the inside, and I learned that I wanted to join my interest in graphic design with my interest in community-minded organizations.”
She interviewed friends who were involved in the non-profit world, and discovered that the organizations rely upon free-lancers and agencies for pro bono work.
“Many design firms do pro bono work as a way to connect to the community,” Handelman says. “Unfortunately, as I learned from talking with people in the non-profit world, the fact that the work is free can short the organization in terms of client status.”
“Always relying on pro bono also impacts an organization’s ability to consistently develop a look for itself. ”
“One agency might be available now, but not later,” Handelman says. “And it’s understandable that an agency would rank paying clients as the first priority, and that pro bono work might not always get time on deadline.”
Handelman wanted to find a way to make non-profit agencies important clients, to give them an assurance of quality and consistency, without being unaffordable.
“The non-profit network works by word-of-mouth,” Handelman says. “My first clients were through family connections, and those initial links were the beginnings.”
501creative has grown in the past six years and has doubled its staff within the last year, driven in part by the firms emerging emphasis on Web design. 501 had previously outsourced Web design work.
The firm’s current clients include the Humane Society of Missouri, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Joseph’s Institute for the Deaf, and Youth in Ministry, a project of Covenant Theological Seminary.
Handelman learned early on that non-profit organizations operate differently that the corporate world.
“Almost across the board, non-profits don’t come into a project with a strict budget in mind,” she says. “Often, they start with a wish-list, and go from there, depending on what they can afford.”
Handelman generally approaches the bidding process with a $60 to $65 hourly rate in mind.
“But we rarely bid strictly from an hourly perspective,” she says. “We take into account what makes sense for the organization, and it’s a process of negotiation between what the organization wants and what is good business for us. Every project is different.”
Further emphasizing the importance of community involvement, Handelman instills a sense of community into the work environment of 501creative. She encourages her staffers to volunteer two hours a week during work time. Initial projects have included collaboration with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
“It’s fulfilling for the staff, and it makes a difference in how they approach their work,” Handelman says. “Getting out to volunteer shows them the fuller picture of non-profits.”
For Handelman, the next step for 501creative is to increase its national exposure.
“We’ve had some success in a local project being broadened to a regional level,” she says. “We did an anti-tree topping campaign for Forest Releaf of Missouri. It grew from a statewide campaign to an eight-state regional campaign and was later adopted by the state of Washington.”
“I’d like to see that happen again and again. That’s a measure of our success — it is rewarding to see the project grow beyond the initial scope.”
“Being asked to address an expanded audience tells us we’re doing good design, and that’s what we’re here to provide.”