Our Founder and Executive Director Matt Schwartz was recently invited onto The Real Leaders Podcast. Below is the transcript of his and host Laura McKinney’s fascinating conversation about leadership philosophy, organizational alignment, building Constructive, and more, edited for clarity.
Company is Community: Matt’s Interview with Real Leaders
Laura McKinney: Welcome to the Real Leaders Podcast. My name is Laura McKinney and I am your host here with Matt Schwartz, the Founder and Executive Director of Constructive. Matt, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.
Matt Schwartz: Absolutely, Laura. Thanks for having me.
Laura McKinney: Of course. So, to start, I know that in brand strategy and the design space, a lot of people are interested in social impact work right now and there’s a high demand for it—especially in the digital space. Tell us how your business is set apart from all the other brand strategy and digital firms out there.
Matt Schwartz: Sure. Well, I we so focus exclusively on social impact and we were one of the earlier agencies to do both brand strategy and digital. Today, that’s no longer a significant differentiator. There are a lot more agencies that fit that model than when we started 23 years ago. For us, what I’ll say is that I believe that we take a different view of how to translate brand strategy into brand value, especially through digital—and do so specifically through a social impact lens.
When I started my career about 27 years ago now, I started as a designer and then got very interested in brand strategy about 16 or 17 years ago—looking closely at how brand strategy connects to organizational strategy and can help improve organizational decision making. And because of my background in branding and design, I was very interested in using the insights that brand strategy generates as a center point for what a nonprofit brand looks like, sounds like, what the experience is like, and what people think about it.
So, since we’ve evolving this approach to integrating brand strategy and design for social impact for a long time now, I think Constructive takes a different and deeper approach to how we position and develop nonprofit brands. I think we take a rigorous approach that goes beyond things like simple brand positioning and brand personality. There’s a lot more to dig into that has greater value for organizations.
Laura McKinney: A hundred percent. That’s really interesting. I think that’s a really refreshing perspective on diving deeper than that surface level that is rampant in a lot of ways. Now Matt, tell me why this? Why brand strategy, why digital design—of all the things that you could do in the world, why did you choose to do this work?
Matt Schwartz: So, growing up I was one of those kids who focused on English and art. I did a lot of writing and I did a lot of fine art. I originally went to college for writing. Then, after my first year, I got more interested in fine arts and dug into that. Then I moved into studying graphic design, both in college and after I graduated. I graduated college in 1993, and that was good timing as far as interactive design because I kind of spilled out into the beginning of the commercial internet. I started working in interactive in probably in 1995 or 1996. It was really the Wild West back then. It was before there were even web standards. So, I was lucky because I kind learned how to design interactive as the industry matured. Then, I decided I wanted to do my own thing and I started my own company.
The reason that I chose to do social impact work is probably because I grew up pretty politically and socially minded. I grew up a punk rock kid and the political ethos of that movement was a big part of who I was. So that informed and still informs how I live my life. As I started working on my own, I realized that I could choose to do work in the social impact space and be connected to organizations that I appreciated doing that kind of work.
So, as to why I choose this work, Laura, it goes back to your first question about why I think Constructive is different. Design is much more than just graphic design. Paraphrasing a great saying by Herbert Simon, he said that “anyone designs who engages in the act of taking existing situations and turning them into preferred ones.”
Laura McKinney: I love that.
Matt Schwartz: So, design doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with making a thing. Nonprofits are engaged in the design of creating a better world. For me, there’s a feeling of the nonprofits Constructive works with being kindred spirits.
There are a lot of interesting things in design thinking, service design, and human-centered design that inform how we approach our work. Anything that isn’t part of the natural world is designed. People made it for people for a specific outcome. So, design is about the context for which you create something. For us at Constructive, brand strategy—a really deep understanding of organizational strategy and audiences—is the context we believe is needed to do great work. That’s why I do this work. I care about the world in which we live, and this is my and our opportunity to do something about it.
Laura McKinney: That’s pretty punk rock. Matt! I love that. I really do. And I think it’s that unique approach, as I was saying earlier, to go under the surface with your clients—to help your clients get to that deeper meaning of what they’re trying to achieve in their social impact.
Matt Schwartz: Brand strategy is about creating organizational clarity. Our goal is to help people understand themselves, their organization, and their opportunities—who they are, what they do, and why it matters. In all of our work, we start with research and discovery—interviews, surveys, desk research, and collaborative workshops to understand a nonprofit from the inside and outside.
From there, we develop a brand strategy and messaging platform that speaks to the things that social impact brands need to so that they can position themselves effectively and then design brand experiences for engagement. Constructive’s brand messaging framework builds out a narrative progressively. Imagine it hierarchically starting from the top and working its way down.
It starts with the purpose. Why does the world need the organization? What is the brand’s reason for being? I see a big part of this being giving voice to people who are underrepresented or to the planet, which doesn’t have a voice.
Then there’s the mission, which is a nonprofit’s call to action. I think every social impact organization can relate to that. Next is the vision, which we believe is really important to articulate with detail. It’s about what the world looks like when an organization achieves its mission—making the aspirational value tangible; making the value and the benefits of the mission resonant for people. And with a nonprofit’s vision clear, we can then define specific goals. So, what are the concrete things, near-term and long-term, that are connected to the vision, that need to be accomplished to accomplish the mission?
We build on the mission by infusing it with values. So, we want to be clear on what the non-negotiable things are that guide everything an organization does.
For many nonprofits, we then may want to articulate a logic model or a theory of change. This is often an evidence-based explanation that says, whether it’s us or somebody else doing the work,. this approach is how you create the best outcomes.
Next is defining the audience, or the brand community—people who contribute to and benefit from an organization’s work. Why do we want and need each other? What’s that mutual exchange of value, the benefit? How do we engage each other?
With the things clear, we now define what we call “brand roles.” This is the work an organization does—their areas of expertise and where they best qualified to lead. We approach defining each of a nonprofit’s work areas by using a value proposition framework. So, why is this role that the organization performs needed? Who’s involved in it? What are the benefits or the value the work creates for people and the mission?
Once you’ve defined a nonprofit’s roles, you can add strengths and differentiators. We’re describing why an organization is particularly good at doing these things that are essential to the mission.
And once we have all of this mission and organizational strategy stuff defined, THEN we can get into things like, what’s the brand persona? What are our brand attributes? What do we sound like? What is the brand experience like? What do people feel when they engage with an organization and what do they remember about it?
So our nonprofit brand strategy and messaging framework is about uncovering and using these insights to inform how we approach design.
Laura McKinney: Those are gems. You just helped so many of our listeners, whether you know it or not. I feel like a lot of the people that listen to this podcast, they’re fiercely focused on defining and getting better at whatever their business is.
I’m curious how you keep up in the digital space. It’s changing so fast all the time. How do you, how do you stay on top of it? Do you constantly feel like you’re treading water or do you feel like you have a good handle on it?
Matt Schwartz: Well, there’s, the way I used to do it and maybe the way I do it now—or at least don’t have to do as much of that as I used to, might be a better way of saying it. Designers are the ultimate magpies. Designers are always remixing ideas. We’re constantly seeking inspiration, looking at what’s going on, and picking the things that resonate with us. So I just think it starts with keeping your eyes, ears, and mind open.
One of our core values at Constructive is an ethos of continuous learning. That’s your best ally in staying up to date. So we have what we call “design deconstructions,” where we take design that we appreciate and talk about different aspects of it. We have Slack channels where we share things that inspire us. And there’s professional development work that we do as a company.
I think one more important thing that it’s great to be individually focused, but so much of our work is interdependent. Content strategy, brand strategy, technology strategy, design strategy in the digital space in particular—all those things connect to one another. Choices that you make in one arena influence somebody else’s. So it’s important to be collectively sharing. So, we do retrospectives of projects, we do “Lunch & Learns” where one team or person explains something they’re learning to everyone. So, a lot of staying current is just knowledge sharing.
Laura McKinney: I love that outlook of kind of deconstructing something to put it back together. I think it’s a good way to gain perspective. Going further into the digital realm, what do you think is successful for your clients? Is it video, audio, or text? Is it pictures?
Matt Schwartz: I think it depends on the client, Laura, Every organization has different goals, different audiences , and different ways of effectively communicating. So, for policy and advocacy organizations—the knowledge mobilization space, where we do a lot of work—these organizations do a lot of publishing and advocacy work. Capacity building nonprofits work on strengthening for the sector. These types of nonprofits have very different needs than say a food bank or a grassroots nonprofit. So, infographics and video are effective for breaking things down. We’re very interested in long-form content publishing and the “bite, snack, meal” approach to content strategy—delivering different amounts of content based on whether someone wants a small taste or wants to dive in.
Laura McKinney: I love that.
Matt Schwartz: Statistics and quantifiable information is really valuable for some audiences, infographics can explain and break down a complex system. Sometimes it’s just powerful storytelling. It can be photojournalism.
The way I like to think about how to make a nonprofit’s work relevant is an idea in Constructive’s approach that looks at three pillars of brand of value for nonprofits., They are Credibility, Proximity, and Impact. The way we think about this is that a person who is interested in a nonprofit is usually interested in the issue they work on. Let’s say it’s climate change. If I’m interested in climate change, I first want to know the organization is credible. Why should I pay attention to them?
There are different ways to communicate credibility. So, organizational history—perhaps an interactive timeline—might show an organization’s impact over time. Showcasing expertise and the people behind the work at a nonprofit can reinforce credibility.
Why proximity matters is that is that proximity is about access. A person who cares about an issue may not be able to go where the change happens. It could be work in another country or it could be working on policy in the Beltway or in a state legislature. Communications and design that either make people feel like they are closer to those spaces or let them know that your nonprofit is reinforces the credibility an organization has. It lets the audience know that a nonprofit can put that expertise, or credibility to use and accelerate change. So we think of different ways to amplify this.
And then there’s impact—communicating what a nonprofit has accomplished and what it can accomplish, which there are countless ways to demonstrate through communications and design.
Laura McKinney: Fascinating. So, how do you conduct market research on who you’re working with?
Matt Schwartz: We work in a good number of issue areas, and there are a few that we have some deep knowledge in. Those big ones for us are are climate change and the environment, another is K-12 education, equity and early childhood care, and another is healthcare and health sciences.
So I think show up for clients as a partner who does know a decent amount about their impact space if its owner of those three. Awe have years of research speaking to stakeholders in these space and analyzing peer organizations. We also add issue framing research to our work to deepen our understanding of how the public understands the issues, which helps us communicate about them more effectively. So we often show up with strong startup knowledge, if you will, that I think makes us good thought partners.
However, even organization is unique, and the saying I often repeat to clients is “we will never know less about you than we know right now.” So, we know we may have a strong understanding an issue or a space, but every organization has specific needs, goals, and aspirations. It’s our job to build on that knowledge base we may already have by getting to know an organization and its people deeply.
Laura McKinney: You work in the education space and some of your clients have included universities like University of Chicago and Yale University, um, and institutions that have been around for years and years and years and years, um, and have such great reputations. How do you help them evolve and innovate, their institutions through your work? What are those conversations like?
Matt Schwartz: So on the education side of things, there are agencies that specialize in higher ed. They often do the website for a university that drives admissions. We don’t specialize in that kind of work. When we’re working with universities such as Yale or the University of Chicago, they have research institutes and significant programs that are in de facto nonprofits that focus on a very specific issue area. So for us, our connection to those higher education brands is through the work of a significant program.
Matt Schwartz: For example, one project we did is the Air Quality Life Index, which is a pretty wild interactive tool that maps air pollution data globally at a 10-square kilometer resolution that’s collected by satellites and compares it to life expectancy and the World Health Organization air cleanliness baseline. So, it answers, what is the effect of air pollution on lifespan so that policymakers can make better decisions. That is a project of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. So that’s who we work with in that case. Another example would be work we’ve done with The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
So, to your question, we help the university innovate and develop their brand through these initiatives, which sometimes stand on their own and sometimes they need to conform strongly to the university brand standard. Each time our job is to understand where the brand we are working with lives in the hierarchy of a brand architecture?
Laura McKinney: Absolutely. And at Constructive, you have eight focus areas and six service areas, I believe, which is incredibly impressive. How do you manage it all? And could you talk a little bit about your team and how they play into making it a success?
Matt Schwartz: Sure, Laura. So, I’ve seen, our team grow and people come and go over the years. And, as a leader and as an owner, I feel so incredibly lucky and honestly, almost pinch myself about how truly great our people are and how they work together to build who we are and are. How committed they are to the idea of who we are. So, building a culture and environment where people feel engaged and can do their best work is huge for us. We have a Higher Purpose as part of our brand strategy and it’s “Engagement.”
The way our teams work—we’ve got a strategy team, a design team, we a technology team, and have a project management team. And our people work together in different ways depending on a project. The glue that over the years that I’ve grown to appreciate is having exceptional project and client management—the importance of client engagement. I started Constructive in my living room. Even when you were 5, 6, 7 people, the practitioners can manage the work to some degree and you may not have project managers. When you get to a certain size, you realize how important it is to focus on resourcing and people’s utilization and understanding how much work they can do well at once.
So, one way that we make sure that our work is a success is a weekly resource meeting with the directors of every team. We talk through what we’re doing, we forecast what might be coming in, and we just are mindful of not just a person’s workload, but also what projects get members of our team particularly excited. We think about who we think our client would really love working with because of their passion for an issue. S
Laura McKinney: Why is engagement such a mission and a vision for you? Why is that so important to your core?
Matt Schwartz: We developed this as part of our strategic planning work a couple of years ago. We actually have our annual retreat next week and will be revisiting it. So, first of all, engagement means caring. When we talk about engagement, we’re not talking about social media fluff engagement. What we’re saying is that as individuals and practitioners at Constructive, it’s incumbent upon us to be deeply engaged in our work and deeply engaged with our clients. When you’re really engaged, you’re in flow and you have the right amount of energy, the right balance of challenge and things you know how to do well. You’re engaged and that allows you to do your best work client engagement.
Also, our clients are so deeply invested in the issues in which they focus and we learn from them as experts. They’re experts. It’s a treat for us to work with folks who are experts in issues. I like to say that we get to get paid to take an ongoing course called “How the World Works” from experts focused on complex stuff. And so we have to be equally engaged with them on the issues. So it starts there and then expands. Our work is about engaging people with a brand. That brand is an exchange of value that the audience and the organization benefit from. So, engagement matters there. And then it grows out to t what it means when society is engaged; what is possible. So we look at it from as small as the individual practitioner all the way up to what does a functioning democracy that is mindful of people and the planet look like when people are engaged. That’s what we hope our work will help our clients do.
Laura McKinney: I mean, you just lit up talking about that. You’re on fire! I can tell you’re very passionate about that, it’s incredible. What is the best part to you about what you do?
Matt Schwartz: Do you mean me individually or do you mean us as a company?
Laura McKinney: You individually.
Matt Schwartz: The best part of what I do is that I get to work with really incredible people both inside Constructive and outside of it. People who are smart, thoughtful, values-driven, want to do interesting things, are visionary, and are committed. There are so many facets to it. When I started the agency, Laura, I don’t think—in fact, I know—that I would have realized that my people’s happiness and setting them up for success would be the greatest reward that I could get.
So for me, there’s a small bit of great satisfaction knowing that I have something to do with the fact that all of the people at Constructive are here. And that increasingly I can step away, let them do their thing and just be there for them when they need me, so that I can focus on my responsibilities to make Constructive great for us, great for our clients. What I say is when I stopped doing hands-on—design, as opposed to providing guidance for the team, is that my design job now is to design Constructive. It’s so great when you have really awesome people, and I have to tell you, I’ve seen it when it’s not so great. Right now, our leadership team, our directors are so phenomenal. I consider myself and everyone at Constructive so lucky that we have them. And they love working together.
So, I love that I get to help create an environment and co-create with them something where they love what they’re doing and enjoy the challenge of getting better every time. And that when they move on from Constructive, they are so much better than they were when they got here. To me, that’s the biggest reward I can ask for. So that’s what I’m focused on and that’s the best part of what I do.
Laura McKinney: Yeah. How special, I mean, it’s always about the people. It really makes a place, makes or breaks a place.
Matt Schwartz: Yup. Aa friend of mine said something once that I really liked—he said “Company is community.”
Laura McKinney: Ooh, that’s, that’s the title of the episode right there!
Matt Schwartz: That’s how I feel about us. It’s really special. I love it. I feel so fortunate and it really is a gift for me. And I know I put a lot into making it happen. But it doesn’t happen but for the people who show up every day to make it happen.
Laura McKinney: A hundred percent. And on that note, to really take it home, what is your definition of a real leader?
Matt Schwartz: Oof! Well, I’ve not thought about this in a way that I have some singular description. It’s too multifaceted. So I’ll maybe riff on some of the things that have been important to me and that I’ve realized as I’ve grown as a leader.
The first is the idea of servant leadership. There’s a book by Simon Sinek that I like a lot called Leaders Eat Last. You and others may be very familiar with it. I take that to heart. So for me, a true leader is somebody, first of all, who always puts the interests of the whole ahead of their own interests—and often puts the interest of another individual ahead of their own. Or at least makes sure that they fully understand, are listening, and are attuned to what’s going on for the people that they have to lead.
It’s critical to be willing to be challenged and to have your opinion changed. This having been said, I’ve probably got a well-earned reputation as somebody with pretty strong opinions. Maybe I do a better job now than I used to of bringing those to the table and bringing those to the group—whether that’s with clients or with the people who work at Constructive. Or even with my wife, Tonya and my friends!
But one of our core values is to lead with intention. I just think that as a leader, it’s really important to have a strong sense of what are good ideas to explore, even if you’re not saying “this is what we must do.” I think a really good leader realizes when it’s time to say, “I want you to do just this way.” The reason is that you’re always balancing that 90% of servant leadership mindset and thinking about everyone else’s contributions. And sometimes you do need to realize that you may know best. You may have the most experience in certain areas. So, as long as you’ve kept your eyes, ears, and mind open, then you can lead with that perspective.
I think the another thing that makes a good leader, for me anyway, is empathy. I think I’m what some people would call an empathetic leader. I like to show up and bring energy to the room, and I like to try to lift folks up and bring humor to the situation even while we’re being serious. So being able to relate to people—as you said before, it always comes back to people like. When I was younger, I would not have understood as well how to flex and roll with what is going on with people to understand their individual situations. I think that comes to cultivating trust and trusting people. The more you give trust, the easier it is to have empathy because you trust the person has good motives.
And then the last part, which is something that I’ve learned from our people who are better than I am, is having a plan or structure. In the Traction model of organizational development. I’m that visionary leader type. Someone who has 20 ideas on any given day, and you should probably ignore 18 of them. Well, that integrator role in the book “Traction,” exists because you need implementation. A great vision is nothing without a good strategy and a plan to execute it. So, I have just learned to not just appreciate, but to thank my lucky stars that we have people who can take on a torrent of ideas and vision or excitement to do great things as a company and break it down or push back. So I think great leaders have to either do that natively or really know how to leverage people who do know how to do it—and play by their rules so that the plan gets executed as designed.
Laura McKinney: Beautiful. Matt, thank you. Thanks so much. I think our listeners are gonna walk away with just new lessons in compassion, empathetic leadership, and having a team-minded community mentality in their business—whether it’s their own personal business and people that they work for themselves and bringing that into, into their own lives. So I can’t thank you enough. I think a lot of people are going to get a lot out of this, including myself. It was an honor to talk to you today.
Matt Schwartz: Thanks Laura. I hope so.
Laura McKinney: Thank you. And for Real Leaders Magazine, I am Laura McKinney signing off as your host and we will catch you next time. Make sure to stay real, my friends.