In recent years, there's been much discussion about design thinking or the design process as an agent of social change. As someone who is not a designer but has worked in collaboration with designers for quite a few years, I can think of no other profession that is better equipped to address and create solutions for societal challenges. However, as a business development professional, I see one critical issue often missing from the current discourse. How do we make this practice viable and sustainable?
Most current efforts in the "social design" space encourage designers to donate time and resources. Although giving one's talent and time is certainly honorable, it is not sustainable. How then does a designer go about funding non-client-based solutions? Like any other skill, the art of acquiring funding is equal parts DNA and experience. Generally, this skill does not come naturally to those in the creative professions and it is not often taught in design schools. This leaves us back where we startedwith a potential pool of conceptual solutions to daunting social problems, but no plan on how to fund them or make a living engaging in this work.
There's no magic bullet here, but there are steps that designers can take to bring their non-client-based concepts to fruition.
Form collaborative relationships. The most strategic course of action designers can pursue is to partner with business development professionalsthose with expertise in business strategy, relationship building, marketing and sales. In the current economic climate, there are many business development professionals available and open to working in consultation, either on a project-by-project basis or longer term. Their skill sets are, for the most part, complementary to those of most designers, and they tend to have relationships with a broad base of organizations that may have interest in funding your concept and experience in connecting projects to the appropriate funders. Most importantly, they are skilled in developing project-based business plans and funding models. My firm, Worldstudio, is an example of a designer (Mark Randall) and a business development professional (me) joining forces to create this type of complementary partnership.
Of course, you may not be ready to move full-throttle into this kind of relationship, but you can still dip your toes in through a consulting relationship. Although there isn't a one-stop shop for this specialized talent, think about the people you know through client relationships or professional organizations that are available in this capacity. There are several websites for posting socially responsible consulting opportunities, so you can give idealist.org, treehugger.com, and hotjobs a try. (And, I wouldn't be much of a business development professional if I didn't mention Worldstudio as a consulting resource for socially responsible project development and implementation, as well as marketing and funding strategy development!)
Get your concept in front of the appropriate funding sources. In most cases, these sources will either be corporations or not-for-profit organizations. Research is key. Which organizations have an interest in the social problem you are trying to solve? Most corporations and non-profits clearly state the types of projects and programs they support on their websites (i.e., environmental, community-based, education, diversity, etc.). Don't think a particular company is a perfect match for your project if it isn't, and don't waste your time trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Do your homework before approaching them.
Once you have a list of organizations that might be appropriate funders/sponsors for your concept, think about whether you have a connection or know someone who can make the appropriate introduction. Do everything you can to avoid a cold call. If you dig hard enough, you'll find a connection or connector, and will be much more likely to get your foot in the door.
On the corporate side, try to find someone in marketing or community relations. Additionally (and particularly in recent years), most large corporations have created sister foundations that may also be likely funders. When approaching foundations (whether with corporate ties or not), make sure your project is eligible for the grants being offered. Again, this information is easy to find online, but whether approaching a corporation or non-profit foundation, nothing is more valuable than leveraging a personal connection.
Develop a business plan. Before presenting your concept to potential funding sources, it is crucial to have a business plan in place. Although it doesn't need to be elaborate, going through the paces of creating a business plan will force you to look at many aspects of the project that you might otherwise overlook. A solid business plan will inform budget (from planning through implementation), as well as marketing strategy and project viability. Remember to budget for all necessary resources in this plan, including fair compensation for your own time. Again, research is key. Don't guess at costs for various line items. If you do a good job, the end result will be the necessary snapshot of the level of funding you'll need to seek, which in turn will inform the sponsorship or funding model. There are many online resources where you can find business and marketing plan templates. You may also want to take a class. Many colleges and universities offer continuing education courses in business plan development.
Corporations are investing more and more of their resources towards non-traditional, grass roots marketing practices through their corporate social responsibility programs. They are looking to align with efforts that demonstrate their organizational values. Your idea can help them, and they can help you.
Andréa Pellegrino is a partner and business development lead at Worldstudio, a NYC-based marketing and design firm that specializes in creating socially responsible programs and projects for corporate and non-profit clients.