People often ask why I started TYTHEdesign, our collaborative consulting firm that supports the needs of organizations working in the social sector. The simple truth: I started the firm because my job didn’t exist. I was trained as an architect and product designer, but in 2009 there weren’t very many opportunities to do impact work in the social good community. I started TYTHEdesign to use the lens of design to increase the impact of groups serving the public good.
We work in two ways. We carefully choose paying clients (both nonprofits and for-profits) whose work we believe in, like Beauty Cares and The Center for Leadership Innovation. We also donate a percentage of our time to nonprofit clients who cannot afford our services. Our name comes from the word “tithe,” the practice of contributing 10 percent to those in need.
Although tithing has a religious history, our name draws from Victor Papanek’s work around social design tithing. He believed every designer should give 10 percent of our ideas and talents to the needs of mankind. Inspired by this idea, we choose projects based on our team's passion for the project and the needs of the community. These projects have been a wonderful opportunity for us to learn, take on new challenges, have fun and still support a community in need.
For example, we’ve collaborated with The Lunchbox Fund on the communication material for the 2012 fundraiser to help their goal of providing meals for at-risk children in South Africa. We also created a single-page instructional emergency shelter manual intended to help populations displaced due to natural disaster or conflict that has recently been adapted by a large global disaster relief organization.
For us, being a for-profit design firm in the nonprofit sector hasn’t been easy. It’s a big sector with very little money, so we’ve been forced to be innovative with our payment structure. We’re also transparent and keep the business lean. Many wonder why we aren’t structured as a nonprofit so we could qualify for grants. I believed that I could create a fair living for myself and a team of designers while still supporting others. Like a nonprofit, though, our company is mission-driven; for us, standing by our values is as important as the work we produce.
Part of being a mission-driven company is using transparency in our decision-making and working process, not just the end product. From day one, we set up a value set: outlining who we were willing to work with (to us the social sector encompasses nonprofits, for-profits, and anyone looking to improve their impact both socially and environmentally); what type of work we would be doing (collaborative and user-centered); and how we were going to share our working process with our clients and collaborating design team.
After developing our set of values, it was surprising how much easier and flexible it was to make decisions and how comfortable we knew our actions would always be truthful to our values. If the project or client didn’t fit into my value set then it simply wasn’t right for my company, no matter what the economic benefit would be.
From this model, we have had some really wonderful opportunities to work with great social sector clients such as Sustainable South Bronx, an environmental non-profit organization, for whom we developed and piloted an educational after-school program to teach job and life skills by focusing on sustainability and business basics through the lens of design. We're also currently collaborating with St. John’s Bread and Life Soup Kitchen on a newly designed Mobile Soup Truck which should be on the road by spring 2013.
For other companies considering a business model that incorporates pro bono work, I would recommend working with your team to set some guidelines on how to choose projects, what services you will provide, and how you are going to fit them in with your paying client work. For us, having a structure for choosing clients helps us end up with the projects we're most excited about, and allows our work to be as rewarding as possible.
Images courtesy of TYTHEdesign