Make A Mark: Branding and designing for nonprofits

An organisation based in Tennessee, USA connects designers and brand strategists with nonprofits for free.

by Portia Ladrido

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Makers and nonprofits at this year’s make-a-thon in Blacksburg, Virginia. © Make A Mark

While we know Steve Jobs as the mind behind tech giant Apple, it’s quick to assume that his experience in engineering and technology is what made Apple what it is today. Little do people know that Steve Jobs fiercely studied calligraphy, which inspired the intuitive, appealing design Mac is known to have – a trait most of the brand’s ardent followers shell money out for.

Another prime example of the importance of design is Robert Recorde, a Welsh mathematician from the 1600s, who “invented” the equal sign (=), which he thought was a cleaner, more efficient way of writing “is equal to”. “Choosing a pair of parallel lines of equal length was an inspired solution and a brilliant example of [graphic] design’s power to solve a practical problem,” says Alice Thowrson in her interview with The Atlantic.

Especially in today’s digitally and aesthetically powered age, design has become a weapon that could catapult a product to success. However, its importance has come with a price. Big businesses invest a substantial amount for proper branding and design – one that may not be readily available to groups that do not have access to a massive pool of resources. Case in point: nonprofits.

This gap is what Sarah Obenauer, founder of Make a Mark, is trying to solve. As one who believes in the impact of social good and graphic design, she, together with her husband, Alex Obenauer, created a 12-hour make-a-thon that connects nonprofits with web developers, graphic designers, and brand strategists for free.

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Make a Mark Executive Director Sarah Obenauer and Assistant Director Alex Obenauer. © Make a Mark

Sarah studied communication in Virginia Tech, where she was introduced to the world of design. Right after graduating, she worked for a statewide teen safety nonprofit, which enabled her to extensively dig into design and marketing work.

“When I was there, I saw the impact of good design, but also, the struggles that nonprofits face trying to get to that point of good design and good marketing, and really embracing creativity and technology, just because of restrictions that are often placed on nonprofits. They may not have the time or resources or their grants may not allow it,” she says.

In 2014, when she started working for a B2B technology company, she knew that she still wanted to have a strong socio-civic engagement. “I was talking to some friends and my husband as well, who were in this technology and creativity space. They wanted to find a way to connect with nonprofits and use their highly available skills to just assist nonprofits for free but they had no idea how to do that,” she recalls.

As she had already been immersed with the nonprofits before, she found herself in a position where she could connect the design and tech community with the nonprofit world.

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Sarah Obenauer leads a discussion with the nonprofit community of Chattanooga on the future of Make a Mark Chattanooga. © Make a Mark

“There’s definitely a lot of prep work in advance – not just from our end, but also from what we call the makers or the creatives that work on the projects,” she explains. The process starts with them selecting nonprofits and building a team to work on the nonprofits’ projects. Each nonprofit is assigned three to five makers and as a team, their projects range from logos or rebrands to full websites.

In choosing their makers, they have them fill out applications to know what skills the makers have that they can best maximise when working with a specific nonprofit. For example, if a maker is good with illustrations, Sarah would consider teaming them up with nonprofits with youth-related projects.

“We have planning meetings in advance with those teams. This gives them an opportunity to come together and learn more about each other,” she says. “The 12-hour marathon itself is just a crazy day – it’s creative, fun, and very intense.”

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2016 Make A Mark event in Virginia. © Make a Mark
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The designers hard at work and ensuring that every detail is put in place. © Make a Mark

The teams are all expected to finish their projects within 12 hours. Their first event was in March of 2015 in Virginia, and while the previous events focussed entirely on getting the projects done, this year, it’s not entirely about just finishing websites or logos. The event will now include training sessions where the Make A Mark team gets to discuss topics that could help the nonprofits sustain their projects.

“We’re planning a couple sessions that will cover how the nonprofits can maintain and maximise, for instance, a website; to really explore the whole potential of the work that’s happening here,” she expounds.

“For people that don’t have a website or aren’t getting a website at the event because maybe they want to start with branding instead of a website first, we have a session to walk them through how to get started on building a really baseline website that will at least get their foot through the door. We’re doing some sessions on free online tools that will allow them to start exploring some design elements or some technology elements.”

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Make a Mark also gathers nonprofits and makers before the make-a-thon itself, so as to strategically team up groups together. © Make a Mark

Out of the many nonprofits that had already attended their events since 2015, one that stood out for Sarah was a nonprofit called Micah’s Caring Initiative. Sarah explained that this organisation had five programs underneath. They had an umbrella program that had a soup kitchen, they had a backpack program for students starting the school year, they had a mobile backpack program in the summer for the same students, they had a community garden, and then they had a clothing centre.

They had all these separate brands that had all these miscellaneous websites and logos. As good as the initiatives were, the nonprofit had trouble getting into that next step of expanding, growing, and helping people understand what they are and what they do, as they didn’t have a connecting brand for all of their initiatives.

“We did a full rebrand for them. We had a great designer of the project who really took the essence of all these logos and the spirit of all these programs and translated and transformed it into this beautiful brand that pooled them all together, and was very cohesive, and told this very beautiful story,” Sarah fondly recalls.

“The director of the organisation was able to apply for an Adobe grant, so it had an emphasis on creativity and design, and they got the grant, which was awesome. It was a cool thing to see,” she adds.

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A maker at this year’s Blacksburg event showing their team’s project. © Make a Mark

There are currently five make-a-thons that are coming up in the remaining months and the next year to be held in Tennessee, Maryland, New York, Virginia, and North Carolina. Each event is organised by independent bodies that want to address concerns that matter within their regional contexts. It has only been over two years since Sarah and Alex played with this idea, and to see these independent events form on their own motivates Sarah more to better serve their audience.

“I’m really excited about this community that we’re in because it’s a really great merger of creativity and civic engagement with the nonprofits that help our community. I’m always excited to see it come together and provide adequate support and mentorships for nonprofits throughout the year.”

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