Design is in the Details

“The details are not the details; they make the product.” – Charles and Ray Eames

Recently, I was invited to present a session on beautiful fundraising at the Minnesota Council for Nonprofits Leadership Conference. It was an incredible opportunity to learn from other non-profit leaders, and to share why and how—I believe—design plays an integral role in fundraising.

Knowing that my content might not resonate with everyone, I decided the singular goal of my presentation would be to help others discover moments where they could use the tools of design to create more powerful, beautiful fundraising experiences.

Even though preparing for a 75 minute session (75 minutes!!) was panicking at times, I truly enjoyed presenting on a perspective that I believe has merit and value in the nonprofit world. The best part of the session for me, though, came via the often dreaded anonymous feedback in the post-conference survey.

Truth be told, I LOVE anonymous surveys, and I LOVE finding ways to improve. Of course, I also LOVE positive praise (who doesn’t?) and, like everyone, can find constructive criticism hard to swallow at times. But I also know that real change is found in the type of feedback that is harder to hear.

While the individual who wrote that it was his “favorite break-out session of the conference” made my day, I’m also grateful to the few folks who were kind enough to share some constructive feedback. Regardless of whether the feedback was positive or negative (is there such a thing as neutral feedback?), all of the comments were a good reminder that the details make or break the design.

For example, one individual shared that the technical challenges I had with my slides were a distraction, even though she found value in my perspective. You know what? She was absolutely correct. Any designer will tell you: The whole depends on the integrity of the smallest element. That’s why interior designers obsess over finishes and embellishments, and can spend hours contemplating the best decorative nail pattern for a reupholstered chair. Designers know that the details are what sets one design apart from another.

In this instance, the technical glitch during my presentation distracted from the value of the whole. Could I have prevented it? Maybe not completely, but I believe I could have made it less noticeable with a little more practice on the software I had chosen to use.

Another individual commented that he wished I had shared more concrete action steps. Although I believed the hands-on activity I included guided the participants through an application of design thinking, at least one audience member felt I had missed the boat on this. Was this a differing of opinion? Perhaps. Regardless, though, I had to admit I had spent many more hours focused on the overarching goal of my presentation than I had spent smoothing out the edges of the hands-on activity that we ended up rushing through at the end of the session.

It’s often like this in fundraising. Juggling all the different elements and pieces of a comprehensive fundraising plan—events, newsletters, social media, staff meetings, team dynamics, grants, the annual fund, donor expectations, the campaign—is often so overwhelming that we rush through them in broad sweeping strokes. When we don’t pay enough attention to—or devote enough time to—each of these supporting elements, or “details”, we miss an opportunity to create impact.

In fundraising, like design, the more attention we pay to the details, the better the chances are that the experience we create will go from “nearly there” to “there” and beyond.

Sometimes paying attention to the details means holding a complete run-through of an event (including those pesky tech transitions) to ensure the most minor aspects are graceful and smooth. Sometimes it means taking a few hours—after hours—to finesse the language on an timeworn grant template.

Sometimes paying attention to the details means being a ruthless editor—knowing when to add or take away elements to achieve a desired effect. Is a specific social media platform not adding value to your communication strategy? Get rid of it. Are you rushing through an important element of an event? Take something less important out. Do one thing and do it well.

This week, I’m challenging myself be a better student of my own advice— “to think like a designer”. Every craft requires attention to detail—fundraising included. Paying attention to details isn’t about obsession, it’s about creating a polished and beautiful fundraising experience for your entire audience.




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