Designing Change: On The House’s Pro-Bono Solution

In search of a pro-bono balance, an Atlanta-based firm found their strategy: one organization over the course of one year gets one hell of a brand makeover. Read the full article in the March 2011 issue of HOW‘s Designing Change column. Plus, check out my interview below with Matchstic’s co-founder Blake Howard.

1.First, tell me about Matchstic?
Matchstic is a brand identity house founded in 2004 in Atlanta with a love for igniting passionate brands. I was fresh out of college when Craig Johnson and I founded the practice after working briefly together in the music industry. At first, we were a pretty traditional graphic design studio until around 2008. Then we realized identity work was where we felt the most alive and could make the biggest impact in our work.

2. How would you describe the feeling of wanting to give back to the greater good, but not knowing where to start?
I think everyone has moments of pure intentionality to do good: after a pep talk, hearing a sad story, or being around a camp fire pow-wow; but actually doing something about it is the challenge. For me, it hasn’t been an issue of not knowing where to start but having the courage to act and just do something. It’s so easy to talk ourselves of doing something great.

3. Tell me the story of how On The House was born. Where did the spark for this come from?

Like any design firm, we constantly got requests to do free work. We offer a service that organizations need, but not all of them have the money to pay for. And like most people, we have hearts and want to help. At first, we would respond in a very reactionary mode after every heart-wrenching story, and try to find a way to squeeze it in to our production schedule breaking our own normal process along the way. Then, it seemed every project we would do for free resulted in disaster, either a frustrated team or a frustrated client. No one was really happy. I think it’s my very linear brain, but I knew it was unorganized and messy, nowhere near our usual business model. So we figured it was time to get serious about giving, practice what we preach, and focus our efforts. So we decided to choose only one client a year and treat them like a real client, taking them through our in depth process and treating them with the respect they deserve.

4. Let’s face it—there’s lots of charities out there that could use “this” and “that.” How did you realize that many “no’s” had to be said before a really big “yes” could happen?
The small things we did here and there for a handful of free clients didn’t really have any impact and it seemed only to perpetuate and enable free clients to freak out and call us only with emergencies. We knew that if we were going to give our time and talent, it should be significant. It should forge a lasting and positive change and that can only happen through doing our best efforts and our best work. Focus is crucial in branding and it turns out it is crucial in giving, and focus usually requires saying no more than it does saying yes.

5. Choosing one organization per year—that must be tough. How do you wade through to pick that one? What criteria do you look for? Why do you feel it’s important to be selective?
We’ve done it differently year-to-year, from choosing someone based on a personal relationship to announcing a call for applications and receiving hundreds of submissions. In the latter, narrowing it down from hundreds to one is incredibly hard. We focus on three main criteria for a recipient: creative opportunity, a heart-felt need and the organizations impact on our city. The local aspect is huge. We love our city and want to use our talents to help those who are on the front lines making it better. Once we choose an organization, we commit to partner with them free of charge for at least one year, and hopefully grow it into a long term relationship. The selection for us is like dating before marriage, you need to test the waters a bit before you take the plunge.

6. So once that charity is selected, walk me through what happens?

It’s simple, we treat them like a normal client. We meet, have discussions, then put together a plan on what walking through the transformation process will look like. We do our best to inspire and educate while also managing expectations. This is the heart of the On The House project. No special processes to cut time spent, no pushing the non-paying clients to the back of line, simply respecting their needs and honoring our commitment to partner with them to completion.

7. What’s it like to finish and look back a year later and see something thriving in a way that it wasn’t before?

It’s simply incredible. To know that a brand mark you created helped a child overcome dyslexia or helped get a homeless person off the street is an amazing thought. Did a symbol we create directly cause that to happen? I don’t know for sure, but two of our most recent On The House recipients, the Swift School, a school for children with dyslexia (2009), and the Atlanta Mission, our city’s largest homeless ministry (2010), have seen incredible results in funding, attendance, volunteer hours and brand awareness since we launched their new brands. I can’t help but want to take some of the credit for that.

8. From a business standpoint, is this an essential arm of Matchstic in some way (good for the soul)?

I believe it is. Our mission is to ignite passionate brands and the best way I’ve seen that lived out is through On The House. That is where we find the most passionate people. There is something about giving up everything to selflessly help others that creates an insane amount of freedom and passion. Of course, it does impact our bottom-line, luckily it is not always about the money. Seeing an organization we’ve helped boundlessly change lives is a far greater reward than anything found on a P&L sheet.

9. Are all employees involved?
Yes, all of our team is involved, especially for the selection process. Everyone, no matter their role on the team, gets an equal vote or say in the final choice. In 2009, when we interviewed 20 applicants (after narrowing down from 100 applicants together), we democratically voted on three finalists and then did another round of interviews to select one winner. I think it’s important for all our team’s hearts to be aligned and on board with the organization and it’s mission.

10. What do you get personally from On The House?
Way more than I ever thought. First of all, I simply believe in the joy and power of giving. In a much broader discussion in some ways I think it’s why we are here. On a smaller scale, I simply love to create. I love seeing art and commerce combined for positive change, especially in an organization I really believe in. Also, I want to help make my city a better place and in a small way I think we are doing that. I think it’s more effective than simply picking up trash or helping the elderly cross the street (even though those are great and important things).

11. Tell us about the circle of professionals that chip in to On The House projects?
We collaborate with the best PR firms, web development firms, brand strategy gurus, researcher, motion designer, photographers, and printers in the country (that happen to be right here in Atlanta) to pull this off. I am so incredibly thankful and inspired by their hard work and generosity. I wish I could thank them all now, but I don’t think we’d have enough paragraphs in this column! We try and connect every puzzle piece to make sure the rebrand is in full effect. We do usually rotate a few partners and there based on personal interests and preference of each partner.

12. How has this organization impacted your community?
In three short years, we’ve helped brand a neighborhood church, raise awareness and create a symbol for hope in a school for dyslexic children, and align and rebrand the city’s largest homeless ministry, giving thousands of meals and shelter to people in need in our city. I really believe in the tortoise & the hare mentality with this. If we continue on, slow and steady, with just one organization a year by the time I retire, we would have transformed 34 organizations in Atlanta. That would be something.

13. What are the big picture goals for On The House?
Our big picture goal is for On the House to become much bigger than us. I would love to see agencies across the city and eventually the country adopt this way of focusing on one probono client at a time. Imagine if all 300+ creative agencies in Atlanta implemented this philosophy in giving. In a few short years we’d have a shortage of non-profits to work with! The impact would be stunning.

14. Do you guys keep tabs on how much work on a charity “would have cost” if the hours were billable?
Yes. We track all of our time and use that time as a donated in-kind gift to the charity. Just like any client, we start with a set budget and plan accordingly.

15. What’s are some of your most rewarding memories and experiences with On The House?
There are so many, but one in particular is when we wrapped up the rebrand for the Swift School in 2009 and they presented us with hand-written drawings and notes from the children as a way of saying thank you. Tears welled in my eyes when I first read them. It was better than any client feedback or fancy design award we could have ever received.

Jessica Kuhn is HOW’s associate & online editor. Tell her about a project or designer who you think should appear in Designing Change.
jessica (dot) kuhn at fwmedia (dot) com.