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Design Vendors Are Destroying Nonprofits!




  • a person or company offering something for sale, especially a trader in the street.
  • a person or company whose principal product lines are office supplies and equipment.

Synonyms: retailer, seller, dealer, trader, purveyor, storekeeper, shopkeeper, merchant, salesperson, supplier, peddler, hawker; scalper, huckster, trafficker

Over the last sixteen years I’ve learned that if there’s a word folks in the nonprofit community love to use to describe design firms, it’s vendor.  Maybe it’s me, but every time I hear it used in conversation or read it in an RFP, the “V-word” brings with it the soothing sound of nails on a chalkboard.

“What’s the big deal?” you might be thinking. “Why should I care?”

Both good questions. The short answer is that if you work for a nonprofit and need to research and choose a design firm to lead your organization through a design engagement, “vendor” is symptomatic of a bigger problem. It suggests a misunderstanding of what design is. It shortchanges the value of good design and the value social change organizations can get from working with design firms. And it can damage the kind of relationship any client would want to build when working with one.

Sounds serious! But if I’m overstating the case, I’m only overstating it slightly.

To understand what’s so troubling about putting the “vendor” label on design firms, it’s helpful to deconstruct the term. Take a look again at the definition at the top of this article. Pretty uninspiring, right? By definition, a vendor doesn’t provide insight or strategic value. Vendors have customers, not clients. (Does anyone want to be transactionally treated by a strategic partner as a customer?). At best, vendors are trying to sell you something—usually a commoditized product or service. At worst, the thing they are trying to sell you is a lemon.

So why is vendor so often used in the nonprofit sector to describe the companies that play such a critical role in translating organizational strategy into tangible experiences?

I don’t believe it’s because anyone is intentionally minimizing the value that design firms bring to the table. (If anything, the case for strategic communications in the sector is on the rise.) I believe it’s a subtle sign of a more widespread misunderstanding that can lead to missed opportunity.

Why is Design So Misunderstood?

There’s a certain twentieth-century quality to vendor (postwar America’s twist on the nineteenth-century purveyor). It’s a convenient catchall for any company that provides a good or service. For much of the twentieth century, concepts like “brands” and “brand value” were still in their infancy, choices were fewer. Our ability to access choices was more limited. And strategic differentiation was therefore much less critical to success. In this world “vendor” was good enough to describe any company in the “posters & toasters” business.

It’s in this context that the traditional client/design firm relationship evolved. Clients had things that “needed designing” and reached out to design firms for help. Design firms were asked to add “beautification and decoration” to the ideas for products, advertising, and communications brought to them.

And for a while that worked just fine (well, fine enough).

In the twenty-first century, this simplistic view has been supplanted by a deeper understanding of what design is and what it can do. An increasingly complex world requires a greater ability to understand, empathize, synthesize, and translate ideas and systems into meaningful experiences that help us make sense of it all. At their best, brands are an integral part of strengthening our sense of identity and understanding. (Think tribes). In this context, design is a powerful, multi-faceted discipline that offers a unique combination of skills to connect us more meaningfully to the world. This paradigm shift is exemplified by the field of design thinking—now embraced by many as one of our best tools for solving “wicked” problems.

Change is Hard!

Despite this shift in the client/design firm relationship, when it comes to branding and communications it’s my experience that the nonprofit sector lags the business world in understanding design’s role in achieving organizational goals. Without question many forward-thinking nonprofits—particularly social innovation organizations—have bucked the trend (If you’re with one, I’d love to meet…). But the sector’s historic aversion to the “B-word,” its tendency to underinvest in strategic communications, its reliance on consensus-driven processes, and the challenges faced when confronted by a major disruption in thinking all contribute to the glacial pace of change.

One tell-tale sign (you guessed it!) is the widespread characterization across the nonprofit sector of design firms as “vendors.” Another sign is the mystifying RFP process that keeps prospective partners at arm’s length and prescribes solutions before a design firm is engaged. Both are symptomatic of a mindset that emphasizes design’s more easily understood outcome (design as a noun), while underweighting the less tangible, more valuable problem solving process (design as a verb).

Unfortunately, a not-insignificant percentage of design firms reinforce this dynamic by either: 1) not having developed a mindset, culture, and practices that position them as a partner capable of thinking beyond deliverables; or by 2) not educating potential partners who may be less informed about the strategic value that design firms can provide. The result is mis-aligned expectations that lead to missed opportunities—and, in worst-case scenarios, flat-out frustration.

Now the good news!

Always Partners, Never Vendors

As I’ve discussed before, design firms and social impact organizations share a unique bond. And hopefully it’s clear what kind of relationship I believe we should have to create the greatest benefit, for each other and the world.

While there’s much we can do to develop more effective ways of working together, it’s my aim, with this article, to create one small behavioral change to help the process. As strong a signal as that single word vendor sends, I believe that simply replacing it with another word will put the the relationships between nonprofits and design firms on much more solid ground.

And that word, of course, is partner.

Partnership implies a relationship based on shared interests and mutual respect. It acknowledges that each party has something of value to share to learn from the other. And it embraces that the two parties are in it together.

And isn’t that what we all want and are looking for when we work with someone?

Kicking vendor to the curb and eliminating it from our lexicon is essential to changing the terms of engagement between nonprofits and design firms. And to creating a framework for collaboration that increases the social impact we can achieve together. So won’t you join me? Next time a colleague refers to a design firm as a vendor, politely correct him or her and explain that there’s a much better way to describe the people who help them advance social impact work.

I will thank you. And, more importantly, the world will thank you.

About the Author

Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz

Matt believes in servant leadership, working with Constructive’s clients and teams to make sure that we stay focused on what matters, and that both our partnerships and the work we produce meets our shared expectations and the highest standards. With 25 years of experience as a designer and brand strategist, Matt helps Constructive’s teams design processes and practices that create social impact brand value. Matt contributes to the field of social impact design, serving on the Leadership Team for the NY chapter of The Communications Network, writing, speaking, mentoring, and conducting workshops. His work has been recognized for excellence by numerous organizations such as The Webbys, Communication Arts, Print Magazine, The Case Awards, Graphic Design USA, The W3 Awards, The Communicator Awards, and others. Matt earned his BA from Sarah Lawrence College in Writing & Visual Studies, and then conducted post-graduate design studies at the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons.

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