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Why Branding & Design Agencies Should Ask Why

We have a lot of clients who come to us with clearly defined priorities for their branding and design projects. Often they’ve identified their problems and the solutions—they’re looking for a partner to simply execute their vision. We think as an agency, we sell our clients short if we take all of their priorities as gospel. In fact, our process is designed to first ask Why, not How, we’ll deliver the goods.

You know what they say about assuming…

One of the most important roles we can play as strategic partners is to identify and politely probe at our clients’ assumptions. We want to make sure that we’re fully understanding our clients’ problems and needs before we all agree on solutions. My worst fear (OK there are worse ones if I’m honest) is establishing a strategy based a faulty hunch and then realizing half-way through the project that we’ve made a poor decision, wasting time and money.

To make this more tangible, here’s how these assumptions/push-back typically plays out:

Client: We’ve heard from our constituents that they struggle to find our offices [Problem]. A priority for our new website is an interactive map that shows every one of our offices [Solution based on Assumptions].

Now, we’re confident that we can make a great interactive map. But are we absolutely sure that the interactive map is a solution to this client’s challenge?

This is a perfect opportunity to dissect the problem and identify questions we need answers to. Perhaps we should ask who can’t find the offices? How are they searching for them? What information are they finding and not finding?

Probing assumptions at the beginning of a project almost invariably confirms the need to speak directly with the people who will use your website, interact with your designs, or read your messages. There are countless examples of user research providing completely unexpected and critical insight for projects. By asking questions that shed light on our information gaps related to our audiences, we’re able to prioritize learning about their needs and perspective.

So short of employing the somewhat reductive 5 Whys Method (which we still dig in the right setting), how do we structure engagements to focus on the right questions, get answers, and not move at a glacial pace?

5 whys method of asking questions

The 5 Whys Method, in all its inquisitive glory.

Putting Inquiry into Practice

In a nutshell, as we begin the Discovery phase of a project, our team focuses our energy on identifying all of our information gaps and any assumptions. From there, we group these questions thematically into areas of inquiry. Then we try to capture these areas of inquiries in 3-5 specific and concise Key Discovery Questions that we’ll present to our clients and use to guide our research activities.

To make this slightly less abstract, I’ll use a (very silly) example:

The Society for the Promotion of Nontoxic Spoons, (SPNS) partners with us to design a new website. They tell us one of their primary goals is to create a more user-friendly knowledge hub that will drive traffic to their plethora of thought leadership on spoons. They tell us the current knowledge hub is difficult to navigate and search.

First, we begin by listing all of the questions we have about SPNS, their audiences, their thought leadership, and their current website. From a long list, we’re able to focus our areas of inquiry on several Key Discovery Questions:

  • Who is currently reading your thought leadership?
  • Are these your target audiences?
  • What information do your target audiences need and how do they need it delivered?

After sharing and refining our list of Key Discovery Questions with SPNS, we design a set of sub-questions that we’ll ask over the course of our research to gain deeper insight. Then we establish which research activities will help us get answers to these questions. To stick with our ridiculous example:

  • Who’s currently reading your thought leadership? → What can analytics tell us about their behavior? (Analytics Review)
  • Are these your target audiences?→ What do you hope to achieve with each audience? What specific actions do you want each audience to take on your website? How do these actions serve your broader mission? (Staff Survey & Workshop)
  • What information do your target audiences need and how do they need it delivered? → Why and how do users find their way to the website, and the knowledge hub specifically? How do they prefer to consume information? (User Research)

I’d love to go into the details of our research intake process here, but it’s probably best to save that for a future insight. Regardless, once we’ve finished our intake, it’s time to make sense of our findings in order to present them in a way that establishes clear recommendations/priorities for executing future work. For digital projects, like PHI or Surdna Foundation, these recommendations often take the shape of business requirements and a project roadmap. Similarly, for brand strategy projects, we present a brand assessment and project roadmap. In both cases, our Key Discovery Questions serve as both a framework for structuring our findings and recommendations and provide a strong foundation from which to launch a project.

Some of our research findings in a brand assessment.

Summing Up

Exhausted yet? It’s a lot of inquiry. It might be easier to just build the interactive map or the knowledge hub. But the question-asking pays off when we have a ton of data and insights to back up our conclusions. We’re able to set priorities and measurable goals for the project based on a broader perspective on our client’s challenges and their audience’s needs. And perhaps most importantly, we establish an ethos for the rest of the project around testing assumptions and exploring ideas that will serve all of us as we navigate decision-making. With a little luck, our partners will be on board with the idea of continuing to test our work as we move into the execution phases with message testing, user-research, and prototyping.

I sense another article coming…

How Collaboration Makes us Better Designers

The concept of the solitary creative genius is a myth. When I first began as a designer, I felt like my designs had to be complete before I could show them to anyone. I think this vulnerability stems from a feeling that we as designers have to think through every element before we can call a design complete. As a result, it can be tempting to withdraw—to fully embrace the solitary designer stereotype—and assume the problems we’re facing are uniquely our own. But here’s the thing: usually another person on your team has dealt with similar challenges.

It can be nerve-wracking, vulnerable, and challenging at times, but getting out of our own heads and incorporating collaboration into our design processes can make us all better designers. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that designing collaboratively means putting your egos aside to make something that transcends the sum of its creators. Here are six ways you can be more collaborative based on our process at Constructive:

1. Start a Conversation

I spend most of my days independently thinking through interaction concepts and visual executions with prototypes, wires, sketches (lots of sketches), and of course .jpgs, .pdfs and some .sketch files. When I get to a place where I feel comfortable that most chips have landed in approximately the right places, I usually first reach out to my fellow designers to get quick initial reactions, advice on how to elevate the work, and general tips on what’s working and what’s not. The computer can be the worst tool for problem-solving, so it’s critical to step away from your screen and talk through the work with another person to make sure your design intention is coming through and the system is intuitive enough for another person to use.

2. Embrace Internal Reviews

We always review internally before presenting designs to a client. This gives other designers on our team the chance to comment on the work. Talking through a design system with another person can be like a sieve for your own ideas. What’s working? What’s an outlier? What are ways we can extend the system? Usually after we talk through a problem, I get reassurance of how to go forward because I know how other people have interacted with the prototype. It’s easy to justify a system’s flaws in your head when you’re the only person who’s seen the design, so it’s critical to get a second or third or fifth opinion on design so we can make certain the system works and is helpful for everyone.

internal design collaboration review
Live shot from one of our internal reviews.

It’s also good practice to test your ideas in presentation mode before having a formal client presentation. What sort of language am I using to describe the design? Is it intuitive enough or do I have to explain my rational in order for someone to understand the intention? If the latter is true, it’s a good indication that I might need to work through the design to get it to a place where it can exist without me explaining how the user should interact with it.

3. Incorporate Prototype Testing

A prototype can be anything. It can be a piece of paper, an interactive InVision board, a card sorting sitemap, or a general experience that’s used to test how a typical user engages with a product. When I’m uncertain about an assumption I have about a design, it helps to do some informal user testing with the design team and other colleagues. Testing with members of your team is a good exercise for thinking through basic user experience patterns because everyone brings a unique understanding of web accessibility standards and how to improve usability. I did several rounds of user-testing on colleagues early on in the process of developing the UX for Air Quality Life Index before doing a round with target audience members to streamline controls and make sure there was a base understanding of how it functioned.

4. Schedule Weekly Design Huddles

We also have a weekly design huddles that allow us to get aligned on what everyone is working on and give us the chance to have a focused conversation on trends, processes, and inspiration. It’s important to come together as a group like this because it creates a forum for bringing up issues and opportunities that we’re experiencing as individual designers.

design team huddle
A Constructive design huddle in action!


5. Share Inspiration

Browsing the internet is primarily an individualized activity—unless of course you’re forcing everyone around you to watch videos of thirsty pets. We try to share and keep an organized record of all the things we see online that inspire us. We do this by using slack channels and Dropmark to categorize links to sites we like. This is an important practice because it makes browsing the internet a more collaborative activity. It allows us to understand each other’s reference points. And since we’re continuously learning from new experiences, it’s important to share what speaks to us in creative, professional or personal ways. It’s also a good way to gauge what your competitors are doing and what techniques or trends are shifting the industry to new and exciting places. By keeping an inspiration library, we can easily reference industry-specific sites in project strategic briefs. It also helps us align as a design practice through having a shared knowledge base about our creative inspiration and aspirations.

Screenshot of Dropmark - collaboration web service we use to organize sites we dig.
A screenshot of Dropmark – the web service we use to organize websites we dig.

6. Collaborate on Larger Projects

Larger projects demand even more collaboration between designers. Some of our recent team projects have been re-launching our own site and designing the Communication Network’s journal Change Agent. These projects have allowed us to put our egos aside and engage in meaningful conversations about what’s best for the overall project. It has been challenging to give constructive criticism on a colleague’s work, but when something is bothering one person, it’s usually bothering more too. Giving each other feedback forces us to have tough conversations about what we’re trying to convey with our designs and understand if something isn’t as inclusive or accessible as it could be.

Working toward one unified idea also allows us to learn collective processes and knowledge. I didn’t know that much about production work before redoing the Constructive site. So I racked my brains for several months figuring out how to optimize images for the web (see future insight). It was only when the other designers started helping with production that we learned from each other to create a process that worked based off all our shared knowledge. Methodology and process solidifies when they happen many times with different people over time.

Final Thoughts

Why am I telling you this? The obvious answer is that any team needs to collaborate to work successfully. That holds a nugget of truth, but the real answer goes much further. No matter your discipline—design, development, content, or strategy—I believe we get better each day as individuals by engaging in challenging conversations with each other. This in turn creates a much stronger, more powerful team.

So if you take anything from this, it’s that:

  • We all strive to create excellent work that conveys truth and value.
  • Our differences make us stronger together.
  • We’ll never recommend using Helvetica as your brand typeface. (Okay, we didn’t explicitly say that here but it’s still true!)

Some of our Favorite Moments from ComNet18

Let’s go back in time to Monday October, 8th—the Monday before ComNet18. Just as Lexie and Senongo were putting their finishing touches on our pre-conference workshop, the plans for our trip seemed as up in the air as ever.

Workers at the Westin San Francisco—the conference venue—were on strike along with thousands of other Marriot-owned hotel workers across the country, citing strenuous and dangerous working conditions, low wages, and other concerns. We didn’t know where we’d be staying, where the conference would be held, and more importantly, whether we’d be asked to sacrifice our values as an agency to cross picket lines.

The good news: We didn’t have to cross any picket lines. The ComNet team decided to switch venues just a day before things kicked off. Kudos to them for all that last-minute scrambling and what we can only assume were more than a few sleepless nights. You deserve all the applause. 

The better news: Just like years past, we learned a lot, met dozens of interesting people, and left inspired and excited to incorporate some of the ideas we learned into our work. So yes, you guessed it! Here comes another conference takeaway blog post.

A brand’s actions speak just as loud as words.

One of the biggest themes of this year’s conference from our perspective was inclusive, equitable communications and how an organization can be an advocate, ally, and facilitator of the change they seek in the world with their messaging and actions. Case in point? ComNet deciding to move the conference so no one had to cross picket lines. It wasn’t the easy move, but it was the right move and as a brand committed to improving lives through communications, it was the only move. 

As nonprofit brand strategists, it can actually be challenging to articulate how a brand is a living representation of your organization’s values, and how important that brand is to establishing trust between your organization and its audiences. ComNet showcased this idea perfectly. Not only did they totally change venues at the last minute to align with their brand’s values; they also invited one of Unite Here Local 2’s leaders onstage during the final morning of the conference to talk about what the protest meant to her, her family, and her community. Talk about using your brand as a vehicle to share the stories of others!

Storytelling is more than telling stories.

Speaking of stories, “storytelling” has become a buzzword in the nonprofit world over the last few years. And for good reason—sharing the stories of the communities we work with is a great way to illustrate and build empathy for the issues we’re tackling. But storytelling isn’t that simple. The stories we tell and the ways in which we tell them can make or break the way they are interpreted by our audiences.  

Our pre-conference workshop, With All Due Respect, touched on this idea. That while stories can be a powerful tool for change, they can also reinforce biases if they aren’t told carefully. In her portion of our workshop, Lexie discussed the ways in which our brains fill gaps in stories with pre-programmed, implicit biases. To overcome this tendency, we should tell stories that make systems a leading character, explaining the connections between individual challenges and systemic barriers so the audience doesn’t have to rely on their own assumptions to connect the dots.

group of people working in a team on a project
An action shot of some of the lovely folks at our workshop writing explanatory stories.

We dove a bit deeper into the complex facets of storytelling on Thursday morning at What We’re Up Against, the Second Stage presentation led by Shaun Adamec of Adamec Communications and Nat Kendall-Taylor of the Frameworks Institute. They began their discussion with this question: why is it that our messages are so often misinterpreted by our audiences? In other words, what is it that comes between what “you say” as an organization and what “they think” as your audience? The answer is culture. More specifically, it’s a set of pervasive cultural myths that shape our interpretations of various social dynamics and issues. One of these myths is “fatalism,” or the idea that the problems we face are too big and deeply rooted to ever change. Framing our messages in a way that balances the problem with potential solutions is a powerful way to ensure our audiences’ brains don’t default to a fatalistic way of thinking.

man giving a presentation on theater stage at ComNet18

Brand isn’t a bad word anymore.

Ten years ago, it was uncommon and unpopular to talk about branding in the nonprofit sector. The “b” word, as we like to call it, was reserved for the for-profit world. But over the last few years, brand has become much less of a dirty word—in fact, the topic of brand made quite a strong showing throughout this year’s breakout sessions. During one of ComNet’s new Dialogue sessions, the Walton Family Foundation discussed their recent, large-scale brand rollout and the ways in which they used the process as a tool to generate enthusiasm across departments. The room was packed full of folks with engaging questions and comments about the benefits of branding.

Of course this is great news for everyone in the agency world, but it’s also great news for the nonprofit world. Why? Stronger nonprofit brands lead to nonprofits with more focused missions, more devoted teams, and an increased capacity to create impact. We could talk for pages about this idea alone, but since that’s not what you came here for, here’s a link in case you want to learn more about that.

See you next year?

I could go on about ComNet18 for hours. But for the sake of your time and attention, I’ll stop myself here. Actually, one more thing: Lena Waithe and Cecile Richards totally blew our minds with their insights about sharing stories and perspectives that otherwise might go unheard or untold. Can one of you please run for president in 2020? Okay now I’m done. See you next year in Austin!

happy panelists smiling after a presentation
Our happy (and relieved) team after our pre-conference workshop!

Engage from the Inside! The Benefits of Internal Branding for Nonprofits (Pt. 2)

In part 1 of this series, I explained that “brands are created from the inside-out.” So while it’s essential to drive external branding with a well-designed strategy, it’s also important to use that strategy “to focus your mission and cultivate the right kind of internal behavior, actions, and culture.” The shorthand for this concept is called a “living brand,” a concept that’s been part of business management lexicon for some time. Living brands help build and maintain organizational identity and cohesion, which is especially important in the social impact sector, where success is harder to measure than it is in the bottom-line-driven for-profit world.

Unfortunately, nonprofits engaged in strategic planning and brand strategy work often struggle to translate the internal memos and documents generated by the process into broader organizational change. That’s because while this work signals an organization’s commitment to change and (when done well) offers a path forward, it takes consistent follow-through to get staff aligned with the ideas and concepts behind the strategy.

That’s where internal branding shines.

Branding is about engaging and activating audiences, mostly through design (in the broadest sense of the term). But as is the case when engaging audiences outside your organization, you have to do more for your internal audiences than communicate what a brand stands for; you have to demonstrate it. By being purposeful about the experiences created for staff, design can help us translate strategy into something tangible and exciting — something that “lives and breathes” for staff and stakeholders alike.

In other words, positively influencing how staff view and experience their work requires you to be both strategic and creative in how you weave the ideas and concepts behind your brand into everyday workplace situations. It also requires leadership that is committed to the brand and what it stands for. So, assuming you’re able to marshal the interest in and resources for an internal branding effort, what will success look like? Here are five benefits of internal branding that underscore its value to nonprofit organizations.

1. Internal branding improves mission focus.

Any nonprofit looking to create significant impact needs to start with a focused mission. Strategic planning and brand strategy are the primary ways to create that focus. Internal branding makes this work tangible by translating strategic planning and brand strategy into communications and experiences that reinforce it — ideally by emphasizing how audiences view and experience an organization’s value proposition. When done well, internal branding not only helps focus your mission — it focuses your organization on what matters to your audiences.

Think of internal branding as a platform that enables your people to embody the core ideas driving your brand and the specific ways in which you deliver value, both to your different audiences and the world at large. Just make sure your internal branding is consistent with the expectations and experiences created by your external branding.

2. Internal branding deepens employees’ connection to the organization.

Work is a big part of who we are and how we see ourselves — especially for people in the social impact sector. By weaving the ideas an organization stands for into the employee experience, you can actually deepen the work-life connection — and make staff feel more connected to the values, attitudes, beliefs your organizations stands for.

The platform for cultivating this connection is a brand strategy that has been developed through an inclusive process. This helps ensure that your brand has buy-in from staff and that they will be more willing to embrace it. It’s also the best way to turn static documents into meaningful brand experiences. By being thoughtful and creative about how you integrate core ideas into your organizational culture, your brand becomes a deeper part of that culture — and something staff are empowered (and will want) to contribute to.

3. Internal branding breaks down organizational silos.

Silos are damaging in any organization, but particularly in nonprofits, where partnerships and collaboration are critical to success. When people don’t understand what their colleagues do or how their work fits together, initiatives tend to become disjointed and less effective. In the worst-case scenario, distrust and resentment set in.

Internal branding — both the process of developing it and the results it can produce — is an effective way to “un-silo.” The key is to articulate how change happens — both in terms of your organization’s operations and its aspirations. Clarifying the different roles your organization plays in its ecosystem helps staff contextualize their contributions to the work and makes clear how everyone’s efforts work together to advance the mission.  

4. Internal branding improves hiring and retention.

For any nonprofit, finding the right people — people who contribute to the desired mix of skills, values, and personalities — is a never-ending challenge. Of course, people who feel passionate about an organization’s work and are happy in their roles are more likely to be, and stay, committed to the organization — and to share that enthusiasm with others. This creates a magnetic force that keeps teams together for longer, increasing continuity, cohesion, and performance.

Also known as “employer branding,” internal branding helps hiring and retention by reinforcing your brand value among the people most likely to feel passionate about it, your staff. And when your organization’s core values are woven into its culture in a way that makes “living the brand” second nature, it becomes much easier to identify and attract people who will fit right in — and stay with you longer.

5. Internal branding strengthens organizational leadership.

Everyone knows that strong organizations need strong leaders to succeed. But to succeed, leaders need a strong brand from and through which they can draw inspiration and channel their efforts. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two that, when embraced and approached thoughtfully, is mutually reinforcing.

As noted above, it’s essential you develop your brand from the bottom-up through an inclusive process. It’s equally important that leadership proactively drive that brand-building effort. Articulating and helping to build a brand that your people believe in will earn you the trust and confidence of your staff, not to mention valuable political capital. By being visibly engaged in the process (and reinforcing it), you signal to staff that the organization’s brand is a priority, that living it is everyone’s responsibility, and that you applaud and support their commitment to being good brand stewards.

Adding it All Up

The five benefits I’ve outlined above are only some of what makes internal branding so valuable for nonprofits. Achieving results, however, depends on a combination of approach, process, and commitment. In the next (and last) article in this series, I’ll go into detail about what the process looks like and where you’ll find some of the best opportunities to apply it.

Until then, keep brand-building!

Write Your Way to a Better Website

We talk to a lot of folks at nonprofits who aren’t happy with their organization’s website. Usually, the site is failing to connect with audiences and accurately reflect who they are. Oh, and in almost all cases, it looks dated and stale. As a result, organizations sometimes ask us to “refresh” or “reskin” their website. In other words, they want the design of their site updated so it looks more modern, but want the existing structure, navigation, and technology to remain in place. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting your site to look better, asking for a design refresh like this can be a band-aid fix for much deeper problems.

At Constructive, we believe that an effective website is composed of four things: brand, design, technology, and content. If your site isn’t performing, you need to invest in a redesign that takes all four of these elements into account—assessing how each serves your users’ needs and impacts their experience of your website. Why? Because on average, users only spend 10-20 seconds on a web page before they leave, and according to a 2006 study, they can develop an opinion of your organization after as little as 50 milliseconds of being on your site. That means it needs to make a good impression on all fronts quickly, or else you risk losing potential advocates. If your website has been “refreshed” to look modern, but users still can’t find the information they’re looking for, they’re not likely to stay interested for long.

“Okay,” you’re thinking, “that’s all well and good, but what if I don’t have the budget for such a big overhaul right now?”

Start with something you know. Content is one of the most important elements of a good website, and if you work for a nonprofit, chances are you and the people around you are adept communicators. So why not rewrite the content on your website? We like to call it content design, because the way you write, format, and structure the words on your is site should have as much intention behind it as visual design. This quote by designer Jeffrey Zeldman says it all: “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

In fact, if you know your organization wants to more fully redesign its website in the future, getting your hands dirty with content now will give you a good understanding of what’s currently on your site, and in what ways it might be falling short.

So if your site’s visual design isn’t compelling enough to make a quick impression, and you don’t currently have the budget for a full redesign, try putting your communications skills to work by redesigning your website’s content. Here’s how:

Before you start…

First off, you’ll need access to and familiarity with your website’s content management system (CMS). If you’re unfamiliar, most CMS’s offer tutorials for making changes and open source platforms like WordPress and Drupal have plenty of educational resources.

Assuming you’re good to go there, you’ll want to start prioritizing your content. Rewriting the content of your website is no small feat, especially if you’re dealing with a large, information-heavy website. Start with the pages that users visit the most: your homepage, your about page, etc. If your organization tracks analytics, even better! You can check which of your pages are visited most and add those to the high-priority list.

You’ll also want to gather a team to help rewrite the content. Try to choose staff who work in different areas of your organization, with varying areas of expertise so the content is as accurate as possible. Just make sure that one person is tasked with being the final eyes on content, and is responsible for entering content into the CMS. That way, you can better ensure that the content voice and style across pages stays consistent. We typically recommend using a spreadsheet like this one to keep track of the process. 

Know Your Audiences

A clear understanding of audiences is the key to determining how you should write and present the content on your site. Who are you writing it for? Keep in mind that this will likely vary page by page.

When your team is prioritizing the pages to rewrite, it can be helpful to note which of your audiences will be frequenting each page. If you’re an organization that provides emergency health services, for example, a ‘Get Help Now’ page would likely be most commonly visited by clients. Think about their content needs when they visit this page of your site. What do they need to know? What content is most important to them?

When we work with clients, we conduct surveys and interviews to learn about an organization’s core audiences. From there, we extensively research those audiences in order to build out in-depth user personas to guide the information architecture, content strategy and visual design of a site. Here’s an example persona:

Scannable Content vs. Long-Form Content

Have you ever stumbled upon a webpage with large blocks of dense text and thought “Wow, this looks SO interesting! I can’t wait to read it all!” If you’re like us, probably not—you’ve likely found it daunting!

One of the simplest ways you can make your website more effective is by breaking up large, dense blocks of text whenever possible. In other words, stop writing so much! This holds especially true for more general landing pages, like your homepage and about page. These pages should be easy to scan, so users can quickly understand who you are, and then learn more by digging deeper into your site.

One of our favorite books on this topic一appropriately named Content Design一details the ways in which the human brain reads and processes text. Spoiler alert: we’re not really reading every word. In reality, people only read about 20-28% of a page’s content online. We look for patterns and words we understand in order to comprehend content as quickly as possible. You can nerd out more about how people read online here, but suffice to say that the less words you can use to inform a reader, the better they’ll retain information and the more interested they’ll remain in exploring your site further.

When users take the time to explore your site deeper than overview pages, you can and should display long-form content, like published research or program descriptions. Such content doesn’t lend itself well to being shortened, so don’t stress yourself out thinking all the content on your site needs to be scannable. While design is a key asset in making long-form content like this more digestible, there are also some content design techniquesyou can adopt to maximize engagement with this more complex content.

The main takeaway here is that by making the more general pages of your site quicker and easier to read, you increase the likelihood that users will be more interested in reading your longer-form content, learning more about your organization in the process.

Formatting For The Win

Rewriting and trimming down your content will only get you so far. Without proper formatting, the text on your site might still be difficult to parse through. By establishing typographic hierarchies, you can establish an order of importance for your content with different text sizes, colors, and/or emphasis. This makes it easier for readers to quickly skim and digest your content. Plus, when text is properly formatted, it encourages users to read more, and engage more deeply with the rest of your site.

Don’t believe us? Here’s an example that makes the power of formatting pretty clear. Which content block is easier to digest?


Via Kaboom Design

For more tips on writing and formatting for the web, you can check out part one and two of our complete guide.

Incorporate Hyperlinks

Once you’ve revised and reformatted your content, you’ll want to make sure users can find all that great information you worked so hard to redesign. By incorporating hyperlinks into the content of various pages of your site, you can encourage users to explore more of your work in different areas of your site. For example, if someone is reading your programs page, they might also be interested in reading some client stories, annual reports, or learning about ways they can volunteer. Have you noticed us using hyperlinks throughout this article?

To Conclude

By now, you should have all the tools you need to start redesigning the content of your website. Of course, content alone won’t fix all your website woes. Brand, design, and technology are equally important elements of a great website. But addressing content concerns will help make the information on your site more digestible, and increase engagement with your audiences as a result. Plus, the more you work on your content now, the better off you’ll be when you secure the budget to begin a full website redesign project.

Happy writing…or should I say, content designing!

Incorporating Concept Boards into Our Design Process: What We’ve Learned

Designers often talk about “design intent”, or the overall visual structure of what we want to design based on our intentions at the beginning of the project. But communicating design intent to clients can sometimes be tough—it’s often abstract and relies on a few creative leaps to understand. This is especially true when partnering with clients who have varying degrees of experience with design teams. We realized that to more clearly communicate with clients, we’d have to build better methods of showcasing our visual and interactive ideas before jumping right into design comps, full layouts, or refined brand elements. That’s where concept boards come in.

Why We Started Using Concept Boards

We started using concept boards about a year ago as a way to clarify our thinking to clients. Each board is organized around a specific theme. Those themes relate to the strategic goals of the organization. For example, an organization may be trying to tell a story about health care in the developing world. The two concept boards may then be called Clean Initiatives, and Bright Future. The visual ideas on each board would be based on that two or three-word theme or title.


Doing it this way helps us to make some strong differentiating choices early on, so the client has a real sense of which visual direction they can go. It might be something clean and minimal, or something warm and lively. Those choices are ones we explore with our clients, using the concept boards as the focus of those discussions. We found that having two of them provided enough of a differentiator that clients could make some clear choices about which one felt ‘right’ for their digital brand. For larger brand initiatives, we might use more concept boards as a way to focus our client’s attention on a wider set of choices. 

What We Learned

After using concept boards for the better part of a year, we’ve come to a few key conclusions.

First, it is critically important to explain how the concept board process will benefit clients.

As part of our initial conversations with a new client, we go over how the boards work and why we find them useful. Where necessary, we include them in our scope of work as a separate deliverable. When speaking with a client about our design process and methodology, we can pair these concept boards with finished products in case studies, to show how our approach works. For organizations that may have a tighter budget or time constraints, we pitch concept boards as a very effective way to communicate design without a longer investigative process.

Second, you need to dedicate time to selecting and editing images that relate to your client’s brand and area of expertise.

We start with quick investigations into interface and typography and pair them with images and other visual artifacts. Those elements, combined with the organization’s brand colors, logo, or key photos, can help tell a much more effective story. Essentially, what we show and what we don’t show can really make or break the conversation.

Third, how you deliver the concept boards matters.

Many of our clients are not in New York or would struggle to schedule office visits, so we need to do a lot of things virtually. Our first attempt at concept boards used large jpegs or PDFs that were difficult to view over screen share or on laptops. Those weren’t really effective. The format wasn’t one that a lot of clients were comfortable navigating, and the files got really large. For our subsequent attempts, we started to look at digital tools which could help facilitate that delivery. Pinterest was one we looked at briefly, mostly because of their in-browser sharing tools. We also looked at InVision Boards and decided to keep using it. Their tools worked with a lot of our other design workflows,  and features like public link sharing and commenting made the client communication bit much easier.

When reviewing concept boards in client meetings we found it helpful to do a few things to set up the conversation. First, we need to explain what concept boards are (and what they aren’t). We tell clients that these visual design conversations are directional, and not completed designs. Creating a false sense of a solution before we had actually started design would hurt us later on as we explored ideas in more detail.

Clients often like to mix and match elements they find in each concept board. That might mean those clear choices we defined early on got slightly muted. Ultimately, however, it means our clients get more involved early in the design process, and we get feedback on what is (and isn’t) going to work for their brand and their project.

To Conclude…

Concept boards clarify our design intent in a number of ways. Starting with client conversations to explain our process, we clarify concept boards as a design and communications tool. While creating the boards, we focus attention on our client’s needs and their overall brand goals by selecting appropriate images, patterns, and sample user interface concepts. When presenting the concept boards, we clearly explain how they’re used and what feedback we are looking for from the client.

Since everyone needs time to digest and think about these more visual presentations, we use InVision or other digital platforms to share the concept boards with the client. This way, they can look at them independently and speak privately with their team. Overall, concept boards are a very effective way for us to communicate our design intent, and we are very happy with the results!

Why Brand Strategy is So Important To Website Design

Imagine you hear about a really interesting social impact organization that sounds like it’s doing important work in an area you have a lot of interest in. You’re immediately curious and want to know more. What’s one of the first things you do? Head right to their website.

You might be on your phone at a conference, working at your desk, or at home surfing on your tablet. You might go directly to their homepage, or you might be clicking a link someone shared that goes to a page deep within their website. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, the second you arrive, you’re presented with a snapshot of the organization.

And in this instant, you start forming an opinion. Is this organization interesting? Do they reflect your values? Are they credible? Effective? Trustworthy? Relevant?

Decisions the organization made months or years ago to introduce you to its brand at this moment—from the budget they set for the website, to the partner they worked with, to their content, design, and technology choices—are now significantly influencing what you’ll do next. Will you explore further, perhaps sign up for a newsletter, and hopefully visit again? Or will you leave without viewing another page, likely never to return?

Of course, the difference between a website that helps build a meaningful relationship with someone and one that turns them off for good isn’t as cut-and-dried as our hypothetical scenario. But it’s not an overstatement to say that websites play a pivotal role in how effectively nonprofits are engaging audiences and turning that engagement into action.

Understanding Brand Value

So, why do people choose to engage with social impact brands? And what role does a website play in creating this engagement?

We engage with nonprofits because they give us an opportunity to put our values into action. Purpose-driven organizations provide us with ways to help realize a world more like the one we’d like to live in. The nature of this relationship—and why it matters to us—is based on the kind of engagement we’re looking for.

“Casual” supporters such as donors, volunteers, and brand advocates are typically attracted by a nonprofit’s intangible and aspirational value—subjective things like the kind of world we’d like to live in, our emotions, and how we’d like others to see us. For these audiences, imagery, storytelling, and campaigns bring them closer to issues they identify with  and are usually the most important part of their experience with the brand.

More engaged audiences, such as issue area experts, practitioners, and policymakers are also influenced by intangible qualities. Taking it a step further, though, they also want to know the tangible ways social impact organizations can help them be more effective in their own work. For these audiences, access to things like knowledge resources, tools, and networks is usually the most important part of the brand experience. 

Of course, whatever a person’s specific needs and interests, it’s the job of a nonprofit’s website to create an experience that bridges the divide between interest and action. And if it is to be an authentic and effective expression of a nonprofit’s brand, a website must represent an organization and respond to the needs of its audience as well as we would if we were representing the organization in person.

Designing Digital Brand Experiences

When an organization creates (or redesigns) its website, there’s an understandable focus on things like making sure it’s “visually appealing,” “well-organized,” “mobile-friendly,” and other fundamentals of good design. These are all important things, but they only scratch the surface of reasons why people visit our websites. Design’s role in translating different types of brand value goes further than these basic principles of effective design.

If social change brands are to build the kinds of relationships they want with audiences—and if they are to have the kind of impact they envision—we must approach the design process with the goal to provide different people with the kinds of value they seek in a nonprofit and its mission. The website is simply a conduit for this exchange.

Using brand strategy as the lens through which we view the websites we create, website process is the best way to ensure we accomplish this goal. Because if successful design (and by this I mean design’s true definition) is all about context, then brand strategy is by far the best way to give everyone who contributes to the process the insight they need to create a website that helps social impact organizations achieve their goals online and in the real world.

Want to learn more? Register for our Nov. 28th Webinar, Build a Better Website with Brand Strategy!

Engage From the Inside: How Internal Branding Strengthens Nonprofits (Pt. 1)

Imagine you work at a nonprofit or a foundation with a decent-sized staff (a few dozen to as many as a hundred employees). It might be a national research institute or a local community development organization. It has several departments focused on different issues or areas of operation. There may be physical offices catering to different needs or populations. It might even be part of a larger network of organizations.

Whatever the situation, each day everyone comes to work and does his or her best to contribute to the organization’s mission. But while there’s a sense of what you’re all working towards, there are disconnects. Silos and knowledge gaps are stifling innovation and affecting results. New funding streams have led to mission creep. The organization has grown, added lots of new faces, and its strategic plan needs revisiting. Staff have very different ways of talking about the organization’s work.

The result is fragmentation that’s making people inside the organization less effective — and is confusing lots of people outside the organization. So leadership decides it’s time to address the problem by working on the organization’s branding with the goal of creating clarity and getting everyone on the same page.

Falling Short of Our Goals

Branding is important to the success of any organization, but it’s particularly important for those in the nonprofit sector. Social impact work is complex and often abstract; results can be more difficult to measure (and achieve) than in the for-profit world; and the temptation of new opportunities for impact (and the funding that comes with them) means mission creep is always a concern. 

The struggle to channel the passion and complexity (and opinions!) associated with social impact work is real. But branding offers a way forward — a process that, when executed well, aligns a nonprofit’s aspirations, operations, and communications.

Too often, however, the results, while useful, fall short of expectations. Instead of creating the strategic focus and clarity leadership had hoped for, a process filled with research, soul-searching, and valuable insights results mostly in carefully crafted content and a new visual identity. Both important things! But…the ultimate goal of strategic brand development should be more than just a new logo and improved communications materials. The real goal should be to dramatically increase an organization’s ability to lead in its area(s) of focus by increasing its cohesion, capacity, and impact.

So what are the roadblocks to developing a brand that significantly improves your organization’s capacity to lead on the issues it cares about most?

EBB (External Branding Bias) Syndrome

What comes to mind when we talk about branding? For most people, it’s external things like reputation, messaging, design, and experiences. That makes sense. How a brand is both projected and experienced is essential to engaging the people outside an organization who benefit from and support its work. External branding is how organizations manage their relationships with people, and it’s how people relate to them. Every external brand experience — online and in person — contributes to generating (or reducing) trust in, support for, and action on behalf of an organization.

Nonprofits often have a particularly strong bias towards external branding. Perhaps it’s because nonprofits direct so much of their energy to collaborating with and serving others. In addition, until about a decade ago, branding was mostly viewed in the nonprofit sector as something that only applied to communications and fundraising. And most nonprofits are understandably reluctant to spend limited resources on themselves when the needs outside the organization are so pressing.

As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Brands are created from the inside-out, so while it’s essential to use strategy to drive your external branding, using it to focus the mission and cultivate the right kind of internal behavior, actions, and culture matters even more. After all, how can we expect people on the outside to believe in an organization’s ability to make a difference if its own people don’t have (and exude!) the same kind of clarity and conviction?

It’s What’s Inside That Matters

We tell our children not to judge others by how they look (or sound). But we’re social and visual beings, and appearances do matter. Brands use design and messaging to turn what’s on the inside (ideas, intentions, and abilities) into something tangible that others can experience (communications and interactions). The sum of those experiences is what people think of us. Assets like brand architecture, positioning platforms, and design systems are great for helping organizations influence the appearance of their brand and create meaningful experiences. But as we tell our kids, it’s what inside that really matters.

When it comes to rebranding a nonprofit organization, in my experience leadership usually embraces this value, but only to a degree. And that’s understandable — it’s hard to get too involved when there are more pressing concerns to worry about. There’s also the reality that legacy perceptions of branding as a tool for communications and development, rather than a strategic asset for mission implementation, persist. The result often is a “skin-deep” approach to brand development that leaves a lot of value on the table.

Of course, even that level of branding produces insights that can help nonprofits create more effective communications. Unfortunately, too often the work fails to go beyond the surface. Strategy stays locked-up in documents that gather dust on a shelf, momentum is lost, and the work never becomes the broader catalyst for greater impact that it was intended to be.

Nonprofits that want to use their brand to increase their impact need to design it into their organizations, not just their communications. That’s how you increase the organization’s perceived and actual value. And the key is a brand development process that focuses and aligns your aspirations, operations, and communications — one that improves the organization’s capacity for strategic thinking, more effectively engages stakeholders both inside and outside the organization, and leads to greater impact.

After all, isn’t this what most of us are looking for when we decide to work on our brand?

In Part 2, I’ll go into greater detail about the benefits of an effective internal branding process and what they mean for social impact organizations.

This article originally appeared in Philanthropy News Digest as a part of the Cause-Driven Design®series here

Decoding the Website Design Process for Non-Designers

For many organizations working in the nonprofit or social change space, working with a design agency can be unfamiliar territory. To make matters worse, there’s a lot of jargon thrown around within design agencies that can be a barrier for clients who are unfamiliar with the design process.

As a project manager who made the switch from the nonprofit sector to Constructive, I sympathize with our clients who find the design world rather intimidating. That’s why I’m here, to break down the typical process for a website redesign and make it as approachable as possible!

There are two main phases of the website design process that non-designers should be aware of: information architecture and visual design.

Information Architecture

Once we’ve done our research and clearly defined a digital strategy for a client’s new website, we move into what is called the “information architecture” phase of a project. In layman’s terms, this simply means that we are working to organize a site’s content in a way that is user-friendly and aligns with the organization’s goals for engaging its audiences. During this phase, a designer or UX designer (user experience designer) will be working on two main deliverables: a sitemap and wireframes.

  • sitemap is a diagram that lays out a website’s structure and defines the relationships between content and various pages on the site. From a sitemap, you should be able to discern how a user would navigate through your site. For example, if you want to find where a news article “lives”, you’d follow the flow-chart like diagram from Home, to News & Events, and then arrive at your desired destination, a single news article. It provides you with a birds-eye view of your entire website and lays the foundation for what is to come next in the information architecture process. Here’s what they typically look like:

design process sitemap example

  • Building on the sitemap, wireframes dig a little deeper and flesh out how content and other elements will be organized on a page by page basis. At Constructive, we start with rough wireframes and incorporate more detail as we receive feedback from clients. You can think of wireframes as being like blueprints for a house一they show you how everything will be laid out, but leave out design details. For example, you’ll see black, white and grey boxes that suggest what content will display where, but you won’t see designed elements just yet (that will come in the next phase)! Before finalizing the wireframes, we’ll also make notes about functionality to remove any ambiguity about how certain features or elements will behave once translated from static comps to the dynamic site.


Visual Design

During this phase, you’ll get to see all our ideas on how to improve content strategy and user experience come to life. A designer will be working on two main deliverables: a concept board and several iterations of a design comp.

  • Concept boards are a collection of visual elements that convey an overall look and feel to help define a clear direction before jumping into the design of individual pages. We’ll typically provide our clients with two design directions, and work with them to select a direction that feels most fitting for their audience.
  • Once a direction has been confirmed, we’ll move into designing individual pages of the site, looking at things like color, type, and image treatment (these are called design comps). Designers might throw some unfamiliar words into the mix, so here’s a list of common elements that are found on most of the sites we work on:
    • Hero image: The image in the header of a page.
    • Hub page: A page that serves to organize related content. Hub pages are typically found in the navigation and contain unique content, but also group associated content. For instance, the “About Hub” might contain important information about an organization, and then link to a staff and careers page.
    • CTA: short for “call to action.” This could be a donate button, or newsletter sign-up.
    • Hamburger menu: a common menu style with three lines in a circle emulating a hamburger.
    • Kicker: small text above content that serves to reinforce what a user is looking at. For example, a site might display several kinds of research in a research archive, and a kicker would specify if it’s a report, article, book, etc.
    • Lorem ipsum: placeholder text used to fill design comps to emphasize design elements over content.
    • Hover state: the interaction when a user hovers over a button or linked text to indicate that clicking the element will take you off the current page.


To Conclude

Demystifying the web design process and defining some of the jargon can make the experience a lot more approachable and ultimately more collaborative. Once you cut through the unfamiliar territory and have an understanding of what to expect during a website redesign, you’re ready to confidently take on the exciting and important task of improving your organization’s digital presence.

Nonprofit Brand Strategy: Breaking Through the B.S.

When I tell people I work on nonprofit brand strategy, I get a lot of blank stares and raised eyebrows. I get it: brand strategy is a bit of a buzzword these days and it’s not exactly easy to define or understand. Adding to the confusion, there’s a lingering perception that brand strategy belongs exclusively to the corporate world, that it’s something mega brands like Nike, Coca Cola, and Starbucks leverage to woo new customers in a crowded marketplace.

So this article is for all those interested in, confused by, or skeptical about nonprofit brand strategy. It’s my answer to the raised eyebrows, a proclamation of my firmly held conviction that a well-articulated brand strategy can be transformative for organizations working to create social change.

Agreeing on a Definition

Our team has written a lot about brand theory already, and my aim in this article is to move beyond theory and discuss some of the tangible outcomes of a successful nonprofit brand strategy. But to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’d like to quickly review what brand and brand strategy are.

There are many definitions of brand, but for our purposes let me define it as the collective perception of an organization shared by its customers or constituents. Brand lives in the minds and experiences of all the different people who come into contact with an organization, including staff, board members, donors, beneficiaries, etc. As branding/design/all-around genius Marty Neumeier notes, your brand is not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.

Brand strategy is an organization’s articulation of how its brand is meant to be understood and expressed. At Constructive, we break down brand strategy into the ideas that drive and position an organization, the messages that express them, and the designed experiences that translate these ideas into more tangible deliverables such as a visual identity, communications collateral, and digital presence.

So with that out of the way, how does a successfully defined brand strategy actually help social change organizations accomplish their mission?

A Gut Check

In my opinion, some of the greatest benefits to be gained from a brand strategy engagement come from the process itself, not only from the final deliverables.

Nonprofit brand strategy engagements typically (and always should) begin with extensive research and analysis of the organization and its existing brand. At Constructive, this phase is known as “discovery,” and our research can take the form of interviews with internal and external audiences, surveys, peer analyses, and workshops with organizational leadership and staff. The culmination of this phase is a brand assessment that articulates the organizational goals for the brand strategy engagement, the perceived weaknesses and strengths of the organization’s current brand, and a plan for mitigating challenges and leveraging opportunities. 

Regardless of the exact nature of this up-front research and assessment phase, the value-add is the same: invaluable insights on how people — from junior staff to leadership, donors to beneficiaries — perceive your brand. It’s a rare opportunity to gain visibility into how all these audiences think about and value your work.

These perspectives can be incorporated into organizational strategy as well as brand strategy, helping organizations address internal challenges that emerge down the road or adjust their priorities based on audience feedback. For what it’s worth, I’ve never worked on a nonprofit brand strategy engagement that didn’t illuminate organizational challenges and help inform leadership’s response to those challenges.

An Authentic, Democratized Identity

At Constructive, we often say brand strategy should be built from the ground up and embraced from the top down. Why?  Because brands that reflect the ideas and perspectives of only a few at the top of the organization and/or a small team of consultants are far less likely to resonate with a wider audience — including the staff and volunteers responsible for sustaining most nonprofit organizations.

Hey, nonprofits-that-have-messaging-and/or-visual-branding-that-either-has-never-resonated-or-no-longer resonates-with-staff, I’m speaking to you! You know what you also have? Staff who might feel demoralized and disconnected from the organization. Staff usually bear the burden of an outdated or dysfunctional brand because they’re the ones tasked with developing bespoke communications material from scratch or visual workarounds to overcome the fact that the organization’s brand is no longer an asset but an affliction.  And that, understandably, can lead to frustration, resentment, and reduced productivity.

For external audiences, outdated visual branding is always a turn-off, especially given the level of visual sophistication that most of us, in the age of Behance and Instagram, have come to expect. By the same token, if a nonprofit’s messaging no longer accurately reflects the work it is doing, its audiences are going to be confused. And who needs that?

Because it’s built on the perspectives of many, not just a few, a well-executed brand strategy engagement ensures that a nonprofit’s brand resonates with both internal and external audiences. And by understanding what motivates staff to do the work, donors to donate, and partners to engage, an organization will find itself in a much better position to communicate these key ideas in its messaging and designed experiences, transforming its brand into one of its greatest resources.

Bringing Clarity to the Cause

Many of our clients come to us for help because their external audiences seem to struggle to understand what they do and why it matters. They know that a well-articulated brand strategy can provide clarity to folks outside an organization, helping them understand the change an organization is seeking to create, how it plans to accomplish its goal(s), and how they can engage with the organization to bring about that change. It almost goes without saying that the more clarity a nonprofit can provide its  audiences, the better positioned it will be to capture their attention, change their hearts and minds, and galvanize them to act.

That said, a related benefit of brand strategy that’s often overlooked is the clarity of purpose it provides internal stakeholders.

Having worked in nonprofit leadership, I’ve seen first-hand the disparate ideas floating around about brand values/roles/personality/logos/etc. Board meetings that touched on brand issues were a particular pleasure. (Not.) Now that I’ve switched to consulting, it never surprises me when nonprofit staff, leaders, and board members offer different versions of their organization’s vision and goals, not to mention the path forward for achieving them. It’s  understandable — the business of change is complex, and lots of nonprofits go at it through different programs, services, and initiatives. It’s sort of like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, with each person describing that part of an organization’s work with which they are most familiar.

blind men and elephant metaphor for nonprofit brand strategy

Again, one of the most transformative benefits of a successful brand strategy engagement is that the process, when executed well, brings together a range of unique perspectives that, in their totality, articulate the shared ideas that drive the organization’s programs and motivate its people.

When staff, leadership, and board members feel that their perspectives have been heard, and their ideas (and concerns) are reflected in a vision and brand narrative that captures that totality, they are better able to understand how their specific piece of the puzzle fits into the bigger picture (or, to continue the analogy; how each elephant part is attached to the others). That kind of unity and shared understanding can be enormously valuable for organizations used to struggling with programmatic silos, miscommunications, duplicated effort, and staff frustration and burnout.

Greater Consistency — and Trust

We’ve all heard the phrase “that’s not on brand,” an expression that inspires eye rolls from even committed brand enthusiasts. But if nonprofits hope to convey consistency and build trust, they need to be able to assess what does (and doesn’t) fit their brand. Here, too, an effective brand strategy can provide a much-needed framework.

Consistency is key to building trust with audiences. Humans tend not to like surprises and feel most comfortable when they know what to expect from others. We tend to like—and trust—people who are dependable (even if they’re dependably flaky), and whose responses in a range of situations are more or less predictable. The same applies for brands — to build trust with your audiences, you want them to feel confident about what they can expect from you.

This idea is especially important in a nonprofit context, as organizations routinely ask supporters and potential supporters to put a great deal of faith in them: they ask us to give them our attention over many other worthy causes, ask to be trusted as thought leaders, and ask for our hard-earned dollars. But every time someone perceives an inconsistency in a nonprofit’s brand — maybe they notice different versions of a logo on a website, or come across different versions of a mission statement in collateral, or land on a donation page that doesn’t work properly — it undermines their confidence and trust in an organization.

That’s why nonprofits need to take the idea of projecting consistency seriously. It’s not just the job of a communications manager to make sure the team is using the correct logo. You need a brand strategy that articulates a coherent messaging framework and provides internal stakeholders with everything they might need in the way of brand guidelines to convince your supporters and potential supporters that yours is a consistent, dependable organization.

Nonprofit Brand Strategy Increases Capacity and Impact

Let’s be real:  the most brilliant nonprofit brand strategy will not boost an organization’s impact by itself. No, the value of an effective brand strategy lies in its usefulness to the real heroes of the show — the people who do the work.

People—committed, talented staff who bring their expertise to the hard work of creating positive change—are the most important assets a nonprofit possesses. And, in most cases, their job shouldn’t require them to think about the organization’s brand; their job is to create impact. By providing them with consistent brand messaging, compelling collateral, and a clear set of brand guidelines, brand strategy can be an invaluable tool that supports and amplifies their work.

So when people ask me what nonprofit brand strategy is good for, I tell them this: brand strategy is a sort of North Star that helps inform an organization’s strategies and ensures that its talented staff arrive safely at their destination. By articulating messaging and brand experiences that express shared ideas, it helps organizations communicate with clarity and consistency to their audiences, and, in turn, helps audiences better understand a nonprofit’s vision and how they can engage with it to advance a good cause.

And the end result of all that? Greater impact. So there.

This Insight was originally published on the Philanthropy News Digest.

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