Keep Your Nonprofit's Next Marketing Project on Track (& on Budget!) by Using a Creative Brief

Karen Parry

Keep Your Nonprofit’s Next Marketing Project on Track (& on Budget) by Using a Creative Brief

By Karen Parry,  Black Graphics

When your nonprofit needs a marketing or PR communications piece, your team and your designer all need to be on the same page. Whether you’re creating a print brochure, user guide, website, or fundraising mailer, you should always use a Creative Brief. The benefits are many, but it will ultimately keep your project from going off the tracks and avoid out-of scope costs.

What is a Creative Brief?

It’s a brief no-jargon, one-or two-page document prepared by your team or your designer. It’s high level and conceptual. It offers inspiration and background but not a solution, and it’s the culmination of the information gathering, analysis and branding strategies. The Creative Brief focuses and defines the essential elements of a project and should be referenced at each milestone and design review. Be sure that everyone in the team and reviewing group has read and understood it and get signoff from them before design even starts. Note that it’s not a content outline. At this stage of the process, you aren’t so concerned with the exact content, but instead focusing on the basic foundation of the project.

Why use one?

  • Provides a foundation for the whole project
  • Easier to get all the stakeholder’s buy-in & final signoff
  • Sets up expectations for everyone involved in the project
  • If you don’t have one your project could go sideways with shifting goal posts and the risk of increased costs
  • Helps ensure you’re on-brand
  • Helps new members of the team get up to speed
  • The designer needs it to start design!

Who should write it?

If your in-house team has the expertise, they can prepare the Creative Brief. For my own design clients, I typically write it after I’ve gathered enough information from the project team. However, a client I’ve worked with for many years, now writes up our project Creative Briefs. The important thing is that it works as the foundation for the creative process without hindering inspiration.

What should it include?

The project specs:

These are just the basics as they are known at the beginning of the project. Some things to consider includes: size if you know it (if it’s a PDF download perhaps it should be standard letter size or maybe it needs to fit into a mailing package that will be sent out in A10 envelopes), distribution method (PDF download, mailed out, leave behind after in-person meetings, left at events etc.), approximate length of content (is this a book or brochure length, single narrative or complex varied information that might suit linking like a website), any printing specs such as printing method (offset, digital or inhouse desktop printer), color requirements (4-color, BW or 2-color etc), bleed (yes or no).

Sometimes the exact form of the piece is not known at the beginning. You might need to discuss with the designer and your team what the options might be to succeed in the project objective(s), i.e., what’s the best delivery format & method. Should your project be a web landing page or a printed brochure?

Project objective(s):

Why are you even doing this project? What outcome(s) or results do you want? Think about your CTA (Call To Action). 

Target audience:

You should already know who your target audience is but remember that audience might change slightly for any project. It all depends on your project’s objective(s). Perhaps your project is to inform the board about your past year’s successes – then the target audience for this project is your board members. Or a targeted direct mailer may be just for your major donors.

Key target audience insights:

What do you want the user/reader to think after engaging your piece?

Mood, personality and tone:

What do you want the user/reader to feel? If your organization has a detailed Brand Guide, the personality or brand qualities might already be stated. But you should still ask yourself what this particular project needs to embody and its overall mood. Don’t be too stingy on the word count, more words will help capture subtle nuances and avoid ambiguity. Be aware you aren’t trying to be all things to all people and watch out for contradictions. You can usually find themes to group the words together like this excerpt from a creative brief I wrote for a client’s toolkit project:

ENERGY: action, fresh, lively, vibrant, positive, exciting, not dry

ACCESSIBLE: friendly, engaging, inviting, practical, encouraging, not overwhelming, non-threatening

PROFESSIONAL: serious, not fluffy, business-like, expert, credible, trustworthy, flexible

What else?

Depending upon your project & team, optional sections in your Creative Brief might be things like: user needs, current target audience mind set, a basic approach, brief project background, other organizations working in the same sphere.  By outlining the fundamentals of the project, the Creative Brief will help you set up expectations for both your team and the designer, keeping everyone on the same page. So remember to always reread the Creative Brief before reviewing any designs & giving feedback. Doing this should keep your project moving along smoothly and on track and ensure successful results no matter the type of project.


Karen Parry is an award-winning graphic designer and the principal of Black Graphics. She’s been creating compelling and effective print designs for nonprofits for over 20 years. Karen helps her clients get their message across and communicate their mission with impact. She is based in New York but works with organizations nation-wide on issues as diverse as health, environment, social justice, and the arts, on projects including branding, logos, print, brochures, reports, books, websites, infographics, illustrations & maps.

She was recently featured in Responsible Designers 2021 in GDUSA magazine.


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