12 February 2010

Non-Profit Design


How does one make design for social change sustainable and scalable? To build a replicable model and an enduring momentum?

As someone who’s worked with non-profits for many years, I’ve occasionally thought about perhaps starting one of my own as a way of institutionalizing some of my activism and work, ideas, research and outreach.

You might be surprised to learn that the largest charity in the world is not run by Bill and Melinda Gates, but is one that promotes and supports innovation in the field of architectural and interior design. That’s the Stichting INGKA Foundation, the Dutch Foundation that owns IKEA.

I have more modest ambitions and checking out the prior art, I found there’s no shortage of design-driven non-profit organizations. A search on GuideStar, a database of non-profit organizations, turns up over 5,000 search results matching the term “design.” In my survey of design-centric non-profit organizations here are some I thought were notable. This list is not exhaustive (for instance, it does not include some amazing educational institutions, museums, or documentary projects) and the examples here are all US-based, but take a look.

For my international readers, most non-governmental organizations and charities in the US are non-profit corporations recognized under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. These organizations receive special tax exemptions and donations to them are tax-deductible. 501(c)(3) organizations can operate businesses, but can not benefit any private shareholder or individual. They are also restricted in how much political and legislative lobbying they may conduct. There are other pro’s and con’s to running a non-profit that I’ll save for another piece (and a bit on how the tax law shapes civil society here and abroad) but clearly I’m not alone amongst designers pursuing this idea. In fact, in this BusinessWeek interview, Antony Bugg-Levine, Director of the Rockefeller Foundation program on Advancing Innovation Processes to Solve Social Problems thinks it may be an increasing trend: firms creating NGO spin offs. In fact, it’s actually fairly easy to start a non-profit corporation in the US. The NoLo book How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation is one excellent resource.

I’ve grouped my list into a few general categories.

Professional Associations

An obvious place to start, these are non-profit trade organizations that promote the work of a given industry.

While these associations exist to support their members, some do have interesting social change projects and programs like Design for Democracy. Some professional networks, however, are explicitly devoted to social change:

Youth Programs

  • Artists for Humanity, an art and design studio providing underserved youth with the keys to self-sufficiency through paid employment.
  • Center for Urban Pedagogy does some amazing work with youth to interpret and visualize public policy and its effects on the city.
  • Inneract Project runs design classes for inner-city youth
  • re:Active Magazine, a nonprofit arts-education program introducing underserved youth in Portland, OR to the power of design and storytelling by publishing a theme-based, expressive magazine about issues affecting youth worldwide. Youth are given on-the-job training in writing, art and graphic design.

Design “Distributors”

  • Publicolor brightens New York City public schools with coats of paint.
  • Ad Council is the largest producer and distributor of public service advertisements in the US.

Public Outreach

Promoting and publicizing design in the public interest.

Non-Profit Design Studios

Non-Profit Organizations Started by For-Profit Design Studios

Appropriate Technology and Design for Development

Architecture and Infrastructure for Development

Urban Policy and Pedestrian Advocacy Programs

Universal Design


A few that didn’t quite fit into the categories listed above:

Are there any I should add? Please

Updated February 16, 2010: A couple of groups have sent in their links. This has turned into a great way of discovering interesting progressive projects!

Last updated October 28, 2010.