At the Service of Charity

Rather than write a check, Aki Designs is putting its talents where its heart is. Founder Mari Saso explains altruism with a difference

Charitable groups have suffered huge hits in donations this year as a result of economic hard times and the fallout from September 11. But while individual and corporate donations have fallen off, studies have shown recently that the small-business sector continues to fund a large amount of community giving.

Small companies give proportionately more than big ones and usually target local projects. One small firm, award-winning Aki Designs in Los Angeles, is trying out a new strategy for making philanthropy a priority, despite hard times. Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein talked to the firm's founder, Mari Saso, about Aki Gives.

Q: You've recently launched a competition on your Web site that allows nonprofit organizations to apply for pro bono design and branding work from Aki Designs. What prompted this idea?


We were asked to speak at an industry organization meeting where the focus was on working for nonprofit organizations. When we got there, there was a room full of representatives from important philanthropic organizations, all talking about the hit they've taken since 9-11. The smaller groups are not getting any funding, and they can't even position their brands among the thousands of other very worthy non-profits. We came back to the office persuaded that we wanted to find a way to help them better their brands and the market position.

Q: Does Aki Designs have any history with pro bono work?


Since I started the company in 1998, we've been asked to make graphic contributions to a number of educational and nonprofit organizations -- designing a Web site here, or creating a logo there. But it's much more effective if we look at all their branding and marketing needs and do a nice package, rather than just do a small piece.

Q: Why has this been a priority for your company? Isn't it hard enough just to make a small company successful?


Yes. It's hard to strike a balance between making a living and doing social work. But one of the reasons I started my own company, after a background in a corporate entertainment firm, was so that I could work with integrity. And since we are located in an artist's loft in downtown Los Angeles -- near Skid Row -- it's hard to turn a blind eye to the need for increased social services. You have to be able to go to sleep at night and feel good about what you're doing.

Q: Who came up with the idea of holding a contest?


I did. I wanted to figure out how we could reach the most people and also get an understanding of what the need is out there. I also don't want this to be a one-time thing: We're probably going to do this twice a year, so we're always working with one pro bono client. We will allow people to apply and reapply, so hopefully we'll get to help everybody eventually.

Q: What has the response been like?


We talked it up as much as we could, in our company e-mail newsletter and on our Web site and in a press release. The response has been good. Dozens of nonprofits have applied, some as far away as Chicago.

Q: Is it going to be tough to decide which applicant will get the first Aki Design "graphic makeover"?


Yes. I didn't want decide alone. I selected a committee of business people, artists, social workers, and labor organizers and we're going to sit down and figure out a point system we can use as we sift through the applications.

Q: How did you determine the selection criteria?


We designed the online application to be very simple, so that the nonprofits wouldn't have to spend a lot of time filling it out. We just asked for their name, their location, the community they served, what they do, and their graphic needs. We're not only looking at very small organizations. I don't want to exclude larger groups if they have an important message and are just as worthy of getting a grant. The determination will be based on what they are doing, and what their graphic needs are.

Q: What exactly will Aki Gives be giving? Are you putting a monetary value on this?


No. We're putting more of a time limit on it. Based on what their needs are, we might work with them for several weeks or a few months. We'll be cleaning up whatever branding issues they have, making sure that their Web site is tight and functions well, and then working on their stationery, business cards, and other pieces that add to their brand. If there's time, we'll perhaps do a mailer or a collateral campaign. One thing we won't be able to do is provide them with printed materials, but I will refer them to my printer who is reasonably priced.

Q: The competition closed this month. When will you choose the Aki Gives winner?


We're actually awarding the grant on Oct. 31. I'm really excited about it. Some of the organizations that have applied are really fantastic, and all of them are doing such important work. I can't wait to get started working with them.

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