Thanks to our members for nominating questions for Dawn Hancock. Your questions helped generate a great exchange that we are pleased to share with you below.

Dawn Hancock is the owner and creative director of Firebelly Design, a Chicago based graphic design studio that is giving back to its community through grants, donations and outreach.

Firebelly designs print, online and motion solutions for sustainability-focused companies and non-profits, as well as advises clients looking to be more environmentally and socially responsible.

Every year Firebelly reaches out to those non-profits who need help meeting the costs of their services by awarding an annual Design + Marketing Grant.

To bring together the many talented student designers looking for work experience and non-profits needing design services, Firebelly hosts Camp Firebelly, a 10-day summer charrette. College design students address a social justice issue with a design and strategy solution for a specific non-profit client. And during the whole process “campers” actually sleep in sleeping bags at Firebelly’s office!

Another way that Firebelly is giving back to its community is through the Firebelly Art Market, where their staff and associates sell wares they have created outside of work to raise money for communities and individuals in need.

Dawn is running a proactive design studio (and doing it well) — we all want to know how and why she does it. Here are her responses to your questions:

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I'm wondering how Firebelly got to the point where you are now. Did you start small with the occasional non-profit client, or project for a good cause, and then as things rolled along you were able to turn this work into your main focus? Also, however you got here, how are you able to keep the lights on working for clients with little to no budgets and still have the time and money to create your own good projects?

In an effort to keep this to a reasonable length, I want to reference a blog entry I wrote back in June, How I Got Here or 10 + 25 = 35. The post references my personal history and I like to share that when talking about Firebelly because so much of who we are as a studio comes from my journey in life. To answer this question specifically though, I began volunteering while I was working for a large internet consulting firm for a local cancer organization. It was a real eye opening experience that ultimately lead me to wanting to do work for nonprofits when I started my business.

The first two years were a mix of projects and types of clients. We did a decent amount of work with an ad agency as their main design/development team for a lot of career-focused sites for larger companies. Not ideal, but we felt that because we were helping people find jobs, the work wasn't crossing any of our invisible ethical boundary lines. Plus we were just starting out and while we certainly wouldn't do work for Phillip Morris, we weren't sure the phone would keep ringing so we pretty much took on most things. The good news was that most of those projects were working with small businesses and non-profits. There were a few slimy characters, but overall we felt good about the work we did; just some of the folks ended up on the shit list.

I think because I had a number of friends who worked in non-profits and the fact that I had already been volunteering for a few years with a couple spots, our name just got passed around. Often it was for pro bono stuff, but not all the time. I'd say that up through our 4th year, we were still doing about 30-40% of our projects for free. Not an ideal business model, but it somehow worked for us (probably because I wasn't interested in taking home a huge salary or having a lot of 'things'). That was also the year I decided to start our grant.

Side note — the first misconception I want to clear up is that non-profit = no money. It is true many organizations (large and small) don't know how to properly budget for a professional designer, much less a studio of them. However, with some education, they begin to see the importance of it. Understanding how non-profits work is key to knowing where they are able to spend their funds. I don't want to get too detailed here, but simple things that non-profits can do to allocate funds towards design + branding initiatives could be as simple as calling it 'outreach' when they are seeking out grants, or even using individual donations that are not allocated towards a particular program or service. Often we talk to non-profits a year before they can start on a project because they are looking for funds to pay for it. Patience is key. We have a lot of folks who get cost estimates from us and then call us back in a year and say, "lets go, we got the money!"

Beyond where they spend their money, knowing that non-profits have budgets just like for-profits is a shift most people need to make in their head. They really do. Even smaller organizations can find money to do pieces that showcase who they are. We've done a number of annual reports, event materials and brochures. Now and again there are advocacy campaigns too. And even the smallest of organizations know that a website is key these days. When we started we'd do sites for small non-profits for $1000, these days organizations of similar sizes are able to fund $15-30k websites, still less than 'corporate' fees, but quite honestly fair rates for the amount of time and attention that goes into them. Not to mention that all of the sites we build have a custom content management system so they are able to update the entire site on their own, making the investment a sustainable choice as well.

To answer the final part of the question, how are we able to create our own good work while doing all of this, I think is actually a simple answer: because we care so much. We are not the type of place that just talks about making a difference, we truly get in and get our hands dirty along side all of our clients. We didn't start our own non-profit, the Firebelly Foundation, because we thought it would be fun. I mean it is, but it's serious work and a serious commitment. Our two programs, Reason to Give and Camp Firebelly are examples of us knowing that what we do really matters to people beyond the printed page or pixels on a screen. It really gives us the energy to do what we do and to the best of our abilities.

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Dawn gives feedback to camp firebelly participants. © Firebelly Design

It is my dream to some day run the type of design studio you're running now, and I really appreciate Firebelly for being such a great inspiration.

Thank you so much! We really hope that the work we do is an example of what's possible. So many people are afraid to take the leap, understandably, but we hope that we are proof that anyone can do this if they really want it. I had no business experience and very, very little professional experience (three years) when I started my business at the age of 25. I always say, if I can do it, anyone can!

Other than being an effective way to do pro bono work is there any other purpose that this serves?

For a number of reasons the grant has continued to make a lot of sense as a model for pro bono work. First and maybe most importantly it educates non-profits that overall brand consistency is incredibly valuable, not just in getting their message out, but also in securing funding and donations. So many non-profits use well-meaning volunteers to design their materials (I got my start doing this, so I am as guilty as the next person). The non-profits regularly take a piece-mail approach and have whomever is available and willing to do it for nothing design the various items over the year. Most frequently those are different people with different agendas, different aesthetics and different strategies for where they want to position the organization. Not to mention that these experiences are often rushed and put through the 'design by committee' ringer. Our grant truly takes all these situations out of the equation by educating the clients in the application before they even submit a proposal. If they don't understand it there, they definitely do if they have the opportunity to interview with us (which means they have made it to the top three or four of the cut). We are clear about the process and expectations and there hasn't been a problem since we started this six years ago.

Additionally, most grassroots and smaller non-profits think that if they look 'too good' their donors will think they are spending their money in the wrong places — which couldn't be further from the truth. A HUGE misconception in the non-profit world. Our grant really disproves that in spades with actual figures, like an organization went from servicing 50 constituents, to over 350 in 1 year at the same time individual donations increased by over 200%... where regular donations went from $50 + $100 to $1000 and up.

Another great purpose that the grant model serves, is it puts a value, timeline and limit on the work you are giving away. The organization knows they are competing for this like they would any other grant, so that immediately changes their mindset in how they approach the whole thing. There is only so much you can fit into one year.

Even beyond that, the sense of pride an organization feels is immeasurable. They are proud to hand out their business cards and get a thrill when pointing people to their website. It's amazing to watch the personal transformation it has on the people involved. This may be my favorite part.

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Dawn explains, to Will, the meaning of life. © Firebelly Design

It often seems that non-profit organizations have more "cooks in the kitchen" than for-profits, and often use a voting technique to determine decisions. Without the same structure of hierarchy as the for-profit sector, how do you manage to please all of the "cooks" without having your designs watered down?

This is, to a large degree, resolved if you just listen to them. Really listen to them at the beginning of the project. Part of our process is to give every single decision maker a project profile to fill out (and we let them decide who they think those people are... sometimes it's just the staff, or the staff and a key board member, or even outside folks who have played a role in the organization over the years). These profiles are about 50 questions and definitely get at pretty much every angle of the project... things like: mission/vision, to if your organization was an animal what would it be? Might seem crazy, but that question is really telling about how that person views the organization and their role in it. We really use these answers to define the parameters around a project. Without a doubt, if we really listen to what they've said, we can design something that meets the needs of all these people and still makes sense for the project, the audience and the client of course. Keep in mind that your client knows way more about their organization than you do. You might be able to talk about it in a new, fresh way, but they should give you all the clues to how that needs to go down. People just want to know their voice was heard.

How are you able to do all you do for your community, plus design, plus continue to make great work, plus seemingly make a profit?

I feel like this was answered in the first response... but if I can underline anything in there it is to not focus on money. I know easier said than done, right? But the truth is that everyone at Firebelly knows they could make a lot more money somewhere else (and they are crazy talented people, so they would be in high demand). It's not about that for any of us... we all live comfortable lives, but we don't live beyond our means. That means we don't need to make huge salaries to get by and we don't need to charge our clients big money to support our lifestyle. And when Firebelly does well, I am quick to share the wealth. I even went so far as to take the entire office on a surprise trip to Thailand — one of my proudest moments.

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Firebelly taking part in the letting go ritual in Thailand. © Firebelly Design

How do you decide to do the split-up between the pro bono and regular commercial work. Is there a ratio of projects, to keep everything afloat?

The only pro bono work we do is the yearly grant. Otherwise, everything is a paid project. And our grant is treated like every other project on the schedule. In some cases it even gets more attention because of the scale of it. Most of our projects don't take us a year, so the grant tends to get a lot of effort all around.

How does this stand out among other branding and design firms, a lot of who are doing CSR related work to broaden their profiles?

Honestly we've been doing this for 10 years now... before it was popular and quite honestly, when it was risky. We also don't think of ourselves as a CSR firm exclusively. Yes, we've always been about acting responsibly, but we think it's about humanity first — is what we are about to do going to hurt people or help them?

I also think that we are a company of actions... I really believe they speak louder than words, way louder. We started a program to help our community because we saw a need that wasn't being fulfilled and voila, literally over a matter of three months, Reason to Give was born. When we realized that our grant was only helping one group a year and that we could only hire two interns a year, we came up with Camp Firebelly. We are problem solvers at heart and passionate doers in practice. I think we are different because we go beyond the project schedule and make things happen when we see a need.

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Dawn prepares Camp Firebelly journals. © Firebelly Design

How involved is the whole team when it comes to handing out your grants? Is there a specific committee or is everyone involved?

Everyone in the entire office is part of the grant selection, we also have our previous grantee, other members of the non-profit community and at least one person from a foundation, come in to help go through applications. Ultimately, I make the final call after many sleepless nights of tossing and turning because there are so many awesome causes to choose between.

Do you seek collaborations with other independent designers, illustrators, photographers and such, too?

Definitely... more specifically around internal projects like our t-shirts, posters and film projects, as well as the one or two art shows or art markets we host every year. We really love collaborating with talented folks. It's super inspiring to all of us and even something most of us do on our own personal time just because we love it so much. The only reason we don't do it as much with client projects is because we are often limited by budgets or timelines. From time to time we hire out when we know we're not the best fit for the need... like a photographer or illustrator, but thankfully we have some really talented folks in the studio who are capable of doing more than their job titles say they do. It's really one of the things I look for when hiring new folks.

I'm a Graphic Designer and educator, and am interested in discussing work like yours with my students. I love the dynamic and spirited content of your website and profile! Great work, thanks for being such good examples of community oriented work!

We love talking to students... so if there is ever a need to have us come talk to your class in person, we're always willing. Or please come visit us when we have an open studio tour (we do those twice a year and you should sign up for our newsletter to find out when and see the space and meet the crew. We'd love to have you!

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Dawn hard at work on the Camp Firebelly schedule. © Firebelly Design

Posted September 08, 2009