Interview with Ryan Sisson, Account Director at Fifty & Fifty

I discovered Fifty & Fifty a few weeks ago while talking with someone about nonprofit branding. Upon seeing their site I was blown away by the caliber of their work and knew I wanted to interview them for the blog. Fortunately, Ryan was enthusiastic about the idea and got back to me quickly. I think you'll enjoy what he has to say. Ryan Sisson is the Account Director at Fifty & Fifty. Essentially, he’s the gateway. With a blend of common sense, passion, and intuition, Ryan serves as the nuts and bolts. He’s in all parts of the organization, fully integrated with all of Fifty’s clients, while also streamlining how Fifty does business, consistently upping the bar on what it means to partner with and creatively serve nonprofit organizations. In an industry on the bleeding edge, building a dependable but malleable business foundation is critical, and Ryan keeps the inner workings on pace with Fifty’s overall vision and development. In other words, he keeps the pulse steady and beating. Prior to coming to Fifty, Ryan worked in land development and then transitioned over to the nonprofit world, where he spent a significant amount of time in the Thailand-Burma area doing humanitarian work and petting very large cats, also known as “tigers.”  When he finally got back on American soil, Ryan became an account strategist for a digital marketing firm, and then made the jump over to Fifty & Fifty where he daily integrates his passion for humanitarian work and business growth for the greater good. (courtesy of Fifty & Fifty).

What do you find most rewarding about designing for nonprofits? Most challenging?

The most rewarding thing about designing for non-profits is being able to be a part of the larger story. Instead of working in the business world that is focused on selling widgets our clients come to us for help with moving people and increasing resources in an effort to help others. On any given day we get to play a part in helping end world hunger, provide clean water, build sustainable farming methods, build schools in Haiti and help end the longest running war in Africa among many other great missions and causes. We also get to know that our work being done is for the greater good and not just for the bottom line. It's realities like this that help you push through the long days, short deadlines, and many other challenges from this space.

There are a couple key challenges that are present when working in this space. The first on is budgets. Non-profits obviously do not have the financial means that a standard for profit company would have and the resources they do have are better used helping than building websites. Because of this we work at a reduced rate in order to provide an opportunity for as many NGO's as possible and we also very much understand that money going to us isn't going to the ground so it makes staying on budget just that much more important. Fortunately we have been able to do this without sacrificing the quality of the work which allows us to create top quality products for organizations that might not have had the opportunity. Another challenge is that we don't get to work with large web teams. Most of the organizations have a point person for the project but that person is also doing development or running programs or even running the whole organization. Wearing many hats is a common thing inside NGO's and so we work to make it as easy as possible on the organizations point person knowing that this is the case.

What kind of information do you need before you design for them? In other words, how do you get to know an organization before you take on their project and what can organizations do to help their designers in this process?

There are some organizations that we work with that we already know a lot about. These are the World Visions and Invisible Childrens. When it's a well known organization the conversation starts by understanding their needs first. If it's not someone that we are previously familiar with I learn more about their mission, programs, where they work, why they exist. Really just a basic get to know them. If I have time I'll do some research before hand so I have context for your conversation. When we are learning more about the needs it allows us to separate a the type of work we will be doing. Some organizations have different departments that have unique target audiences, some need to do a fundraising campaign, and others want to do a full redesign of their site. Our last step in the process is learning about the goals and KPI's (key performance indicators). This information shapes what the project looks like. From an action standpoint this often takes place on the phone however I also have some documents that I can send over in order to get all the key information we need.

Short of hiring you guys what can smaller non profits be doing right now to visually tell their story?

I think the first thing that the smaller non-profits can do is take the time to figure out what their story is. Most of the time NGO's are so focused on their work that they don't really know who they are talking to and how to speak to them. If you know your story then you can shape it to your audience. The way to speak to a 50+ year old donor base is a lot different than how you speak to a young professional or teenager. After that it really is important to focus on content. Photos, videos, and website copy are the voices of the organization and they need to make sure that they properly represent the brand and speak to the right people. Finally I would say less is more. One good photo is more impactful than dozens of poor quality, also lots of words don't necessarily mean you are communicating. Most people are spending small periods of time on a site so short and concise copy is going to be more effective than lots.

How does original photography play a role in an organizations design?

Photography is really important. Photos engage the visitor, tell the story without words, communicate the topic of the page and even the mission of the organization. When we are working with a selection of good photos it makes the design process not only a lot smoother but much more effective. If we could we would send a professional photographer to every programs our client has.

Who are some non profits who you feel are hitting the mark on design and branding? What are they doing right? 

I think the first ones that come to mind are Charity:Water, Invisible Children, and ONE Campaign. These organizations know that their audience really well. They create a lot if not all their original content in house and have decided that they will spend the money on continuing to do so. A lot of the larger NGO's depend on an older donor base that isn't bombarded with visual media like the younger generation is. With these orgs reaching the younger demo is key and so it is not only worth it but vital to their success that they continue to tell their story in a compelling way which can find a place in their donors lives in between the latest reality tv show and a new viral YouTube video.

How has the feedback been from clients you’ve worked with?

The feedback has been really good. Their new sites have been able to make it easier and more effective for a donor to support the organization, better utilize tools that allow content to be shared online, and properly tell their story so that people can find a way to engage with it and take part. The majority of our clients stay with us long term and work to continue to refine and improve their online experience as well as help them communicate the new developments, programs, and successes of their work.

What's your favorite project Fifty & Fifty has worked on and what made it your favorite? 

I think the hardest but favorite was Kony 2012. From the beginning we we're working with Invisible Children to create a new kind of NGO campaign experience. We we're able to help ideate the project's online tools and function which was a great process. From there is moved into becoming the largest and fastest viral movement in history. It was a very fluid project because it changed so rapidly and threw new challenges at us constantly. It was also amazing to be a part of history and most likely something that I will never experience again...although if we do we'll be prepared. When Kony is captured it will make the whole project and experience just that much more rewarding.

You all seem to emphasize continuing the story. Can you talk about that some? What does that mean and what does it look like?

We set up 50 so that we're in it for the long run. The story of these orgs and the people/causes they serve are on going. There are very few times that the work is done and everyone can move on. Because of that we come along side to not only help in the initial story telling process but also communicate the twists and turns that each non-profit goes through from hardships to celebrations and everything in between. The work is never done so to jump in and do one project and then leave would keep us from continuing the story. Practically this looks like most of our clients moving into what we call a maintenance phase which is a batch of hours that they pay for allowing us to pull any needed resources into their project to work on their site. This also looks like us developing relationships with our clients that lead to conversations about what is next, where they are headed, what they need, and how we can play a part in making it happen.

Technology has certainly impacted this generation and you all really embrace it. Are there any new developments in technology that you are excited about and what are some technologies that you are currently implementing that are helping to deliver a better story?

Donations are a huge if not the biggest resource that our clients are pursuing. I am probably being a little bias in this answer but I think the most exciting piece of technology that we are using is a donation platform that we built called Donately. This system has all the features of your traditional fundraising system such as ability to create campaigns and individual fundraisers but we've added two important elements. The first piece is what we have dubbed project level fundraising. This allows an organization to create projects within campaigns that they can allocate funds to. This allocation creates a connection between the donor and where their money is going. We live in a world of transparency and technology allows for this. The supporter demand is going to be continually pushing into more openness and information on where their donations are being used and this feature will help make that possible. The other part of this system that is changing things is the API we built. Since we are a design company first we focused on creating a system that allows us to design the donation experience they way we wanted to. We are no longer restricted to other systems templates or just your traditional donation page. We can build interactive giving experiences, put donation widgets on any page in any spot, add an iFrame donation tool into a blog post or a just about any other thing we can think of with the donation data. We can focus now on the donor and the experience they are having rather than just trying to get people to the one donation page and convert them from there.

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Have any questions for Ryan or 50 & 50? Leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to get them answered.