What does Black Flag have to do with web design for social impact?

In this latest episode of the Nonprofit Thrive podcast, Ben Freda welcomes Matt Schwartz, the Founder and Executive Director of Constructive, to explore the power of branding and website design in bolstering nonprofit messaging. Matt delves into his mission to drive social change, reveals the inspiration behind founding Constructive, and details the process of onboarding new clients and website projects.

Today's Guest

Matt Schwartz

Matt Schwartz is the Founder and Executive Director of Constructive, a leading social impact brand strategy and design agency. With a passion for advancing a more just, equitable, and sustainable world, Matt leads the Constructive team in partnering with visionary organizations to tackle some of society’s most pressing challenges. In his role, he oversees all aspects of Constructive’s operations, serving as a hands-on partner to clients and guiding the team in shaping practice areas and processes. Matt is a former active leadership team member for the New York chapter of the Communications Network. He is also a prolific writer, speaker, mentor, and workshop facilitator, sharing his expertise and insights to empower others in the field of social impact branding and design.

Listen On
  • Spotify
  • Apple
  • Amazon Music
Matt Schwartz image description

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • What attracted Matt Schwartz to social impact design?
  • How music influenced Matt’s interest in social change
  • Matt shares how he began a career in agency work
  • The inspiration behind starting Constructive
  • Matt reflects on the project that put Constructive on the map
  • Constructive’s process for onboarding new clients and website projects
  • Measuring information to allocate resources
  • Branding and website design for nonprofits
  • Matt shares a story about the impact of website design and branding

In this episode…

Effective messaging is paramount to driving engagement and achieving objectives in the nonprofit sector. How can nonprofits harness the full potential of digital storytelling to drive positive change in their communities?

Understanding an organization’s mission, audience, and goals enables mission-based agencies to craft tailored strategies, amplifying their impact. Social change advocate and agency owner Matt Schwartz shares a poignant story illustrating the profound impact of website design and branding on nonprofit initiatives. Through strategic alignment and creative ingenuity, he emphasizes the importance of empowering not-for-profit organizations to leverage their digital presence for greater social impact.

In this latest episode of the Nonprofit Thrive podcast, Ben Freda welcomes Matt Schwartz, the Founder and Executive Director of Constructive, to explore the power of branding and website design in bolstering nonprofit messaging. Matt delves into his mission to drive social change, reveals the inspiration behind founding Constructive, and details the process of onboarding new clients and website projects.

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by BFC Digital.

At BFC Digital, we help nonprofit organizations thrive on the web so they can improve the world.

Our team of creative and tech experts understands that an online presence can help foundations and organizations accomplish their missions. That’s where we come in. Over the last decade, we’ve advised our clients on web design, front- and back-end development, and tech support.

We’re committed to supporting a select set of clients who continually inspire us with their vision for a better world.

To learn more on how BFC Digital can assist you in realizing your organization’s mission, visit, email us at, or call 646-450-2236 today!

Episode Transcript

Intro 0:06

Welcome to Nonprofit Thrive, a podcast where we learn from the humans who are helping nonprofits succeed in the digital world. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Ben Freda 0:23

Welcome, I’m Ben Freda. On this show, we share the stories of leaders in the nonprofit space. The people behind the organizations, the foundations, the companies that help nonprofits make the world a better place. Past guests, we’ve had Elise Newman, who’s executive director of Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, who talked about this great program they have in Oregon, where supporters can adopt a mile of coasts and help them protect it, which was awesome. We also had another example we had Jake Wunsch from the Media Law Resources Center. He has somehow managed to put together a daily email to their membership that gets over 50% open rate which blew my mind. Listen to listen to that episode, if you’d like that, that’s a good one. Before we get to today’s guest, who is going to be awesome, I have to tell you this podcast is brought to you by BFC Digital. We help nonprofits thrive on the web. For many you know, non profiteers, web tech can be frustrating, it can be scary. It can be a black box full of jargon, you know, PHP DNS hosting, domains. Our job at BFC Digital is to make that easier for you. We can handle everything from the smallest site maintenance tasks to larger web development projects, web apps, etc. Go to to learn more. Today, we are lucky enough to have Matt Schwartz on. He was referred to us by Emily Culbertson who recorded an episode with us a few weeks ago. Go back and listen to that one. And she introduced me to Matt. Matt is the founder and executive director of Constructive, which is a social impact brand strategy and experience design firm. They partner with visionary organizations to help advance a more just equitable and sustainable world. Matt is in charge of leading Constructive’s team. He’s also a hands-on partner to the clients that Constructive works on. He helps shape practice areas and process. He focuses on the quality of the work. And he elevates, our purpose is translated into mission align strategy, messaging and design experiences. He also serves on the leadership team for the New York chapter of the Communications Network. He also writes, he speaks, he mentors people, and he conducts workshops. He’s all over the place. He does all kinds of stuff. Matt, thank you so much for joining the show.

Matt Schwartz 2:50

Oh, my pleasure, man. And I should quickly correct just that I was for seven years on the New York leadership chapter for The Communications Network. Last year, I stepped down to focus more on I just found running the agency was more than enough for me, selves.

Ben Freda 3:12

As someone who runs an agency, I can add, I’d like to say,

Matt Schwartz 3:15

sorry, to your point of I like I’m all about out there and doing lots of things. And maybe you know, I have done a lot of things right now a lot of what I do is really pay attention to my agency and our clients. That’s a lot of time and effort and a lot of that other stuff sometimes it’s nice. First things first.

Ben Freda 3:36

Totally, totally. And then there’s all the outside of work stuff, too. Yeah, you there’s always there’s seasons for everything my friend needs. So can you wait, why don’t we just start I’d love to learn more about sort of how you got into the social impact design space. First. I know you went to RISD in in Providence. Was it then that you sort of started this idea of starting a firm? How did that come about? No. So

Matt Schwartz 4:00

First, I did some studies at RISD and at School of Visual Arts, I actually went to college at Sarah Lawrence. So I originally went to school for writing was my primary focus. You know, I did a lot of writing and you know, English and writing and artwork in high school, were my thing amongst others, and several months had a really great writing department. And so I went for that. And then I switched over to adding digital or visual studies. So focusing on fine art really. And then, during the course of that I started doing continuing ed and extra work and spent years doing a variety of different type of design coursework and a lot of my own self taught stuff. So as far as how I got into social impact work, I’ve as I’ve told a lot of folks I kind of grew up very much a kid in the 80s punk rocker I was Born in 1970, and had an older brother was four years older than me. And he was always filtering good music to me and just kind of had a bit of that background. And so a lot of the ethos of politics and issues and awareness around society that was infused into my muse is what I listened to ultimately, I’ve, you know, played some to like, all of that was really important to me. And so, I think I’ve just always had that as a bit of my where I’ve, my mind has gone and my values may be, are informed. And so, you know, when I graduated college, and then, you know, basically, I eventually moved into doing design. And, you know, I graduated in 93. And the commercial Internet was basically getting going, by the time I really was starting to hit the beginning of my career. And so I worked at, you know, some ad agencies doing digital work and this and that, and basically did that for five or six years and then started constructive. So, which at the time was just Matthew shorts Design Studio? So I, you know, started this work based on my interest in those issues. And the early very early years, we I did whatever I could get my hands on pretty much. I mean, obviously, I didn’t do anything that I felt was unethical, but I didn’t just do social impact work, but quickly, aggregated focus the work we do, and that I did there and grew from there.

Ben Freda 6:31

Gotcha. That makes sense. So I mean, when you when you were listening to punk rock, so how into it, were you? Oh, you were deep into it? Yeah. I’m

Matt Schwartz 6:41

a really big music fan. And yes, I listened to I mean, on my I’m much more expansive tastes now. But yeah, I listened to I mean, back then, was a really good era for punk rock, you know, and I just the punk movement from, you know, the late 70s, you know, into the 90s. And, you know, the post punk movement, and all of that was a, that was a great time for that kind of music for sure. I mean, I still enjoy things that are in that vein, and yeah, so listen to a lot of a lot of a lot of stuff over the years. Do you remember,

Ben Freda 7:17

I listened to a little bit of it in high school. My sister was really into punk music and I was always sort of listening to whatever she tossed my way. Do you remember? Rancid Sure? Yeah, I love that band. And there was an I forget the name of the album now but there’s that one song that starts took the 60 bucks that busts out of downtown Campbell remember that? No, I

Matt Schwartz 7:35

never I didn’t listen to rancid they rancid to my knowledge is they would get a little bit into some of the not quite Scott punk but I think they had that. Yeah, that’s not that’s never my vibe. I’m actually you know, I’ll say pretty clearly unless it’s like Fishbone I’m not very in the sky. I mean, the specials are cool and stuff, but I didn’t love that movement. Not that it’s like bad I just never got into it. And at that point, I maybe I was listening to some other things I did so yeah, I I listened a lot to The Dead Kennedys and the back of the Circle Jerks and acts and then later listened to bands like Fughazis and Dropbox. And I’m actually good friends with Bill Barbeau who was the guitarist there and owns an agency actually similar to mine. Wow. Yeah. Anyway, listen to a whole lot of stuff in the in those camps.

Ben Freda 8:26

And do you think do you think music now? Is there any genre that embraces like social criticism as much as that genre did then?

Matt Schwartz 8:34

Boy, that’s a good question. I do not think so. I mean, well, it’s tough. You know, it’s funny. My wife and I, our kid listens to a lot of contemporary rap and hip hop that I just, it’s just all about sex and money and whatever. And there’s a bit of that, but I’m just like, Jesus, they really need to mix up their subject matter. But, you know, because it’s there. It’s certainly not as you know, look, I don’t want to be this old guy. Like all the golden age of hip hop, you know, in the 90s was like, really when there was some great stuff going on there. I’m sure there still is. I just for me, the punk rock movement. So much of it was about that there were bands. Yeah, that are they were silly. Where they were crass. Yeah, but so the overwhelming idea of punk music. Yeah, is about social commentary. And yes, I think that hip hop, the rap, the rap game rap music has has been a huge has had a lot of that obviously, as well. But there’s also a huge strain of it. That is just kind of like stuff that you’re just like, I mean, they may be good beats and interesting or whatever, but it’s not exactly. It’s it’s maybe social reflection. I’m not sure. It’s quite social commentary at times. So yeah, look I think the punk movement, so much of it was about that. And it’s a good question you asked, because I had, maybe that’s why I loved it so much growing up, like I listen to a lot of indie rock now, and it’s interesting, but it’s not a biting social commentary.

Ben Freda 10:14

think I’m like, I’m not a lot younger than you, I was born in 77. So I really my music was really, you know, late 90s through 2005. And so it’s a lot of that indie rock stuff. And it’s not social commentary the same way. It’s social reflection. Yes, maybe a little little cynicism about the way things are a little rejection of the way things are. But the punk movement is almost like, it’s so funny, because people think of it as a violent thing or a dark thing. But it’s almost like eager. You know what I mean? Like, it’s almost like sweetly, you know, straightforward about the changes that need to happen. You know what I mean? What’s wrong with the world? It’s not cynical at all.

Matt Schwartz 10:53

Punk rock, it’s very political music, a lot of it even if they’re not talking some bands, I mean, the Dead Kennedys were, you know, straight up naming names political. Yeah, there are others where, you know, it was more nonspecific that way, but still talking about political issues. And so yeah, again, that blend of me I you know, I’m on the record of saying music is humanity’s greatest invention ever. I’ll go to my grave on that one. You know, I just think music is the, you know, someone I met who I said that to she was a musician. She said, I have a different saying, she says, I say music is proof of God. Now, I’m not a religious person. But I love the sentiment. Yeah, yeah, for sure. Yeah, I just, you know, I just think that the blend of music and politics and what it can do to bring people together, and the great thing about the punk movement, it was so DIY, there’s a lot of now about, you know, equity, or maybe being inclusive, you know, the punk movement may have had its problems, and they’re, you know, totally, you know, male dominated in certain ways and all that, but boy, it was really inclusive, and lots of eclectic stuff going on in it really energetic, really embracing of all kinds of different viewpoints, at least the stuff that I listen to, and, you know, maybe that’s a big part of why that strain, or that can that thread connects from punk rock to doing social impact work through my career and through constructive,

Ben Freda 12:30

totally, totally. So that’s the story. We’re gonna tell them this podcast episode, at least. It’s your your social change where you’re at have an interest in punk rock.

Matt Schwartz 12:41

I’ll talk about just about damn near anything.

Ben Freda 12:44

No, it’s in there. It’s a narrative. It makes sense. So So you go. So your interest in social change through that? And through other things, I’m sure. Did you when you were working for that first five years before you started constructive? And you’re working for ad agencies or whatever? Did you ever have a feeling like frustration about who you were working for? Or were you really just kind of hungry and doing whatever you could?

Matt Schwartz 13:05

I was kind of just finding my way in my career. I mean, you know, I had the My first job was as a production designer and doing print production design for a pharmaceutical ad agency, and, oh, this they were, this was like, you know, it’s kind Davison man. They’re a very well known big ad agency. And but the things we were doing were like zithromax, which is an antibiotic, you know? Yeah, sure. So these weren’t like drugs like now the consumer drug market where I might be like, looking at it a little questionably these were lamp, you know, real therapeutic things for like infections and various other stuff. And then, you know, I worked at a young Ruby cam and what was new technologies department, it wasn’t even called Interactive back then. This was like, and that was where I had worked my way into a job there within y&r and you know, you’re doing work for like, you know, banner ads doing animated banner ads, or mini sites for like, a TNT or seven up or pepper? I remember and MiliMatch Novell? Is that the name of the technology company? Yeah, yeah, no, but I’ll remember doing so. You know, none of it was objectionable or distasteful. And at the time, I was focused on how could I be good at my craft, which Yeah, and a lot and I was very much a self taught designer. And I continued to just do more and more self teaching, and then just continuing ed classes, I had good visual instincts. But I didn’t understand typography or grades or any of that stuff. I had to work hard to learn that afterwards. So my focus was training my eye and my hand to be good at design in my mind.

Ben Freda 14:50

So when they put you you were on the new technology team. Did they put you on it because you were young? I mean, did you actually sort of have you didn’t have it back? any coding or anything at that point?

Matt Schwartz 15:01

Oh, no and no. And you didn’t you wouldn’t. I mean, there were people who did coding know that were designers, you know, agency. So you had designers, you did have some developers. It was the very nascent. Yeah, the internet. I mean, this was 95 or 96. I mean, this was really early on. I mean, Alta Vista was an actual search engine that people use.

Ben Freda 15:20

I remember that. I used Alta Vista for sure. Yeah. Oh,

Matt Schwartz 15:24

um, Netscape Navigator. Right. Early Netscape Navigator. So no, no, I, I basically, you know, look, I grew up as an entrepreneur, I printed and sold T shirts I did all often, like I, you know, I basically had a friend to his sister worked at y&r and the general agency. And I basically got an introduction and just kept hounding someone of this guy named John Manus, who went on actually to do the branding for JetBlue, when JetBlue got created, wow, he was the creative director. And I just kept emailing him until at some point, I, you know, he brought me in for an interview, and I got a job. But back then, a lot of us didn’t know what the hell we were doing. And interactive, it was a very nascent field. So you could get by on, you know, energy and a good eye and just sort of hunger to work hard and do interesting and good stuff. And quite frankly, make a lot of pretty mediocre and bad work from a fundamental perspective. But a lot of people were in it was okay, so I just worked my way into that. And I specifically I wasn’t going to go work in the big ad agency, it wasn’t something I had experience with. I had done some freelance work with, like doing banner ads, and like little landing pages and things of side gigs. So that was kinda like what I knew at the time.

Ben Freda 16:49

That makes sense. That makes sense. And so what was the thing that made you say, I’m going to quit this, and I’m going to start my kitchen table, I assume you’re started on your own, maybe you start with one other person, oh, just me. So today, I am going to quit my job and sit down at my kitchen table and work for myself.

Matt Schwartz 17:05

So I had two other jobs after that. And the last job was working at a play the job in between was at an advert gaming place, doing these kind of Vert, interesting advertising trivia based games, mostly. And I would design those. And then after that, I worked at a place called online retail partners doing e commerce design. It’s where I started to get exposure to information architecture, I would work with a UX designer, was the early stages of UX design, quite frankly, to compare now, I What, what led me to leave the do my own thing. I mean, a I’m kind of wired that way. I think if you grew up listening to punk rock, and you have an entrepreneurial bent, you’re out and somebody that’s better off working for yourself than else. And, yeah, I didn’t love working underneath the people I was working under, I don’t know, and I wanted to do my own thing. And I, you know, I knew it would be more than me just freelancing, but I didn’t know much more than that, you know, basically, I’ll start doing freelancing, I worked in my living room in my rent stabilized apartment on the corner of France in Lafayette. And that was, you know, 2000 and started to, you know, towards the end of 2000 is when that happened. And yeah, just working on my own and hustling and, you know, learning and making lots of mistakes along the way. And, you know, figuring out how to grow a practice and bring people

Ben Freda 18:46

that is like, I can so relate to that, because I did the same thing, except it was on 14th Street and Third Avenue instead of Prince and Lafayette, but the same kind of deal, you just have a couple of jobs, you know, and for us, for me, it was up putting content in someone else’s website that would that was it. Just uploading doing content upload, you know, and I was like, Hey, someone will pay me to do this. Oh my gosh, and so you sort of start you know, and you do that? That makes sense. So tell me about sort of the early What was your very first client?

Matt Schwartz 19:15

Oh god, man no one’s asked me this. Oh, this oh my god. Very first client?

Ben Freda 19:21

Yeah, who was the first person to actually pay you real money as Constructive?

Matt Schwartz 19:26

Oh, God, I wish I knew the answer to this question. I don’t know.

Ben Freda 19:30

You can’t get back to it.

Matt Schwartz 19:31

I don’t know. I don’t know if I can figure it out. I honestly don’t know from back then. I do have a bunch of my old work saved but I don’t know if I have the very first time like I can remember the first time I got paid doing freelance work but I don’t remember who the very first client I did work for under Matthew Schwartz design studio after I no longer work for someone else. I don’t

Ben Freda 19:59

think What’s the first one that you do remember your first big, exciting client or project? Well,

Matt Schwartz 20:04

first big, exciting client, I’ll say that maybe a good way to say the first big exciting client that I think laid the groundwork for the work we’re doing now. They’re actually two but one was the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I, they’re kind of, you know, probably, I would say, maybe now a bit more center. Right. I don’t know. But they’re, I think, mostly a centrist think tank that does a lot of work on understanding the Middle East and conflict there and etc. And clearly, they have a US bent, but it’s, you know, I think they are not certainly are bright or hard left. And they had a massive website, they had a, at the time of 5000 Plus page website, this was early 2000s. And it was all independently coded HTML pages, that was brutal. So and we built the CMS from scratch with raw PHP, so no framework, no, certainly no, CMS, Drupal or WordPress weren’t anywhere able to do this kind of thing. So I had a developer script out this, this guy, Rex, Ray, brex, Hamilton, Randy, he analyzed their code and wrote scripts to identify the different eras of writing because the there was an inconsistent tagging structure for how pages were coded. So in order to parse out all the content and extract it, the content migration had to like, say, if it was code, if you see this structure, like he basically looked at like 10 year periods, and like, anyway, I’m getting a little in the weeds, but basically, you know, I did the wire, I rebranded them. I did logo and identity design, we ultimately did publication design. I did the UX, the wireframes, the content strategy for the website. In a way, it’s interesting kind of leaned on a lot of my e-commerce background, because knowledge is the product, we do a lot of work now, or I’d say a big part of our focus is knowledge mobilization clients, folks who are, you know, research institutes, think tanks, a lot of publishing. And they do data work, and they want to have data visualization and tools. In those in you know, we call this knowledge mobilization, nonprofits, and the like, knowledge is the product and so single e commerce. So some of the patterns and ideas and things you think about, like that translated well to that work, and I found it very interesting. And because I love typography, editorial, design and typographic excellence in communicating dense content. I find that very interesting. Like one of my early when I was learning typography and assignment that Paul Shaw, a well known type designer, gave our class back in the day was to typeset a bibliography. It’s really cool type assignment because you have to learn how to use small caps and italics and bold and like, make up beautifully typeset bibliography. Well, you know, you can do that well in for me, like I find that interesting. So Hmm. Content, rich, editorially driven, knowledge based content for policy in this episode. That was like the very first big job was a really, they’re they’re still a very well known organization. It was important work. It was a big get for us as a firm. I can only imagine. I think there were like four of us in the company at the time. Right? Three?

Ben Freda 23:52

Yeah, yeah. That’s a juicy, juicy 5000 pages. You have to migrate the content for build a CMS from scratch, redesign, rebrand. That’s a juicy project.

Matt Schwartz 24:00

Yeah, yeah, it was a lot. It was a lot. And we worked with them for a good number of years afterwards. So we did a pretty good and that website lasted them, I think close to a decade.

Ben Freda 24:11

Yeah, yeah, totally. This is an aside, but the websites you do now you guys do website work now? Yeah. The websites you do now? Do you ever tell clients or have an expectation for how long it’s going to quote unquote, last? Or is that no longer a thing? Because my mind is changing about that too.

Matt Schwartz 24:27

Oh, I think it’s absolutely. It’s a thing and people organizations are allocating, hard earned or you know, fundraised money. Yep. For what is arguably one of their most important strategic assets. It’s, it’s the 24/7 365 day a year ambassador for their organization. It may be a tool that may connect members and give them you know, the ability to log in and do things Most websites are a big investment. And if you’re going to ask for six figure sums to do large, complex projects, I think we take it as a point of pride and think it’s a responsibility to build in a way that will last quite long I, you know, we work on doing decoupled, ideally, kind of headless CMS approaches, even just using WordPress, but decoupling the front end and the back end fully. You know, we think we think a website should last at least seven or eight years, many of the sites we’ve done, do, they’re such, they’re still actually up, there’s one that just got redesigned, it was close to a decade old. And we think the back end should last a decade, you know. So I think that those are important considerations for organizations, when they’re deciding what to invest some a lot of folks don’t understand what it takes to actually build a modern website, for sure. Do it in a way that is going to take care of everything from operational efficiencies on the back end for how people in or interact with it, their admins or users to they’re the most heavy users of your website, actually, yep, they’re in there, perhaps on a daily basis. So how thoughtful you are about how the backend is built is going to have as much of an impact on its effectiveness for you as an asset for your organization, as the experiences on the front end, at least if you care about your people, and the folks who have to do that back end stuff and integrations to complex systems and all that those things matter just as much as the user experience. And so we think, you know, the work we do should, you know, ideally have a seven to 10 year lifespan. And ideally, if be adapt, like, you know, keep the back end for even longer and just completely on the front end.

Ben Freda 26:50

And that’s kind of saying about if you’re gonna get to ask about about how the CMS is right, like, you can keep the same back end, hopefully, and totally redo the front end, even if it’s built well, as long as it’s built. Well, yeah,

Matt Schwartz 27:03

we get a lot of folks that come to us. And we’re like, we hate where we are on WordPress, and we really don’t like it, we want to get off of it. It isn’t that they don’t like WordPress, it’s that they had a really terribly developed installation of WordPress, yes, that either the firm cut corners because they had to for budget. And that often happens. And I get it, I would not overly invested way beyond you know, what was allocated for a project. If it wasn’t there to do that stuff, you just can’t you got to work within your means. Or that’s just not where they focus. And they use lots of plugins and all these

Ben Freda 27:43

are, yeah, exactly. We do a lot of maintenance and support. So we’ll have organizations come to us all the time. And he just little bits every month just a little bit. And we see I mean, from the entire spectrum, right, we see we see things that are built really solidly great. There may be one piece of custom functionality for which a custom plugin is built perfect. Or there can be trillions of plugins all doing different things, you know, so we’ve, we’ve seen it all from the back end. But yeah, I think you’re right. I think people don’t really, a lot of firms at least don’t don’t consider the back end, they’re really looking at what does it look like on the front end? Right. Like, they’re not thinking about how people are gonna use it. Yeah,

Matt Schwartz 28:20

yeah. And it depends on the culture of the agency. I mean, what I say to clients when they’re evaluating, because, you know, look, we’re not the least expensive game in town, and we don’t want to be and I will explain and stand up for the values that I think we create through our work. And you know, what I explained to folks just be consultative, when you know, we’re not always a good fit. And I want to be as helpful and consultative as possible. And what I try to tell folks, you know, is that if budget is an issue for a website, almost certainly the first thing that an agency is going to neglect is the back end, because it doesn’t show up for your users as a as an organization. And so okay, and it doesn’t show up in their portfolio. And so, right push comes to shove, I would do the same thing, right? Like that’s you have to you have probably two really keep priorities. If push comes to shove as an agency, it’s to do really good work that serves the audience as well who show up and for it to look really good in your portfolio. So people believe you can do really good work. And you need the budget to do all of that and to be thoughtful about the back end, so that editorial teams love working with it. And for sure, I have a really great testimonial I’ve gotten from a woman Caroline Miller, who is the head of editorial at the Child Mind Institute, which is what is best projects that we’ve done in recent years. And she just sent me an email that just thanking us for how great the system was to work with and she’s like, I’ve been through 10 redesigns or websites in my lifetime and this was by far the best processing If it does what you said it would do, and it does it well not signed off, but you know, it’s a pain in the ass. So what,

Ben Freda 30:08

what, what are some of the things to be if you’re comfortable sharing? What what are some of the things that you did for that project in the back end, that they really appreciate it?

Matt Schwartz 30:16

Um, well, I’m not an engineer. So when you know, what I can say is it’s built the way any modern CMS should be, which is really good modular system on the back end, using atomic design principles using or WordPress in this case, you know, a lot of the good work for that starts at the taxonomy level, and how well the content strategy organizes and structures content, and then just how a human centered the workflow for building pages is on the back end, so that what you get on the front end, kind of is aligned with the way you build it on the back end. You know, it’s of course, creating, you know, the other things that that don’t work well in sloppy builds is, you know, sites where every page is one hard coded template, except the homepage, and that hard coded tab is like basically a Microsoft Word editor in the middle of a wrapper of the navigation in the footer.

Ben Freda 31:11

Exactly, exactly. Yeah. So people are gonna relate to that. Yeah.

Matt Schwartz 31:15

So designing the back end to do that stuff well, and creating content types so that their actual database elements so that content can be really dynamically connected when you’re developing again, if if, if knowledge is the product and the thought leadership is the product, the research is the product, the art, the way those are constructed down to the database level is as important as the typographic detail. Editorially, when you’re designing, working in pull quotes, and calls to action, and all these other things, I care about all those things. And I think, you know, our costs than I think that’s the way you need to approach doing it well, and have, you know, it’s a little bit of the Steve Jobs ethos versus the why can I think it was in the X first name right now? Steve, Steve Wozniak, right. So you know, Steve Job’s unequivocally a terrible human being? Right?

Ben Freda 32:22

That’s what it sounds like, right?

Matt Schwartz 32:23

I read his biography.

Ben Freda 32:32

Love that book. Fascinating.

Matt Schwartz 32:34

Well, you know, it gave me a real appreciation for as much of a dick as he was, he was a real visionary about the contained holistic system. Now we work open source. So I’m not necessarily advocating for that we’re not building product that way, though. The main thing he understood is that software and the user experience working holistically and speaking to one another, and being controlled, if you will, really matters. And that that’s where the idea of slapping in plugins and stuff. If you’re going to basically, you know, Wozniak would be putting plugins into all sorts of things, because hackers want to do this, that and the other thing, yes, jobs would be thinking very thoughtfully about how does the back end of the way the software is built, and in his case, the hardware translate into what the user experiences. And that’s what the brand is about. So I that we want to think about that continuum, the met through line

Ben Freda 33:39

that makes total sense. Let me ask you a sort of a slightly different question, which is, which is about you’re talking about how, for a lot of the projects you work on knowledge is the product right? Like the either articles or thought leadership or spreading information. And that’s one of the reasons I love working in nonprofit world is, I’m not working on websites where they’re selling shoes, or selling, trying to get someone to click the the contact button so you can get a coaching free therapy session or something. There’s a lot of for nonprofits, sometimes it’s hard to, I guess, quantify what your, what the outcome is that you’re looking for the same way that if you’re selling shoes, it’s easy. You’re trying to sell a pair of shoes, you choose each pair of shoes, you make 50 bucks, thus, you can spend however much on something and then you can buy traffic from Google at x rate. And if you calculate that and discounted by the drop off rate you get you get the number. So for how do you guys think about that when it comes to like a knowledge nonprofit where you’re spreading information? What’s the value of that information? Can you put dollars onto it in a way that helps you decide where to allocate your resources or not? How do you think about that? That’s a huge cloudy thing in my mind at the moment that I’m trying to wrap my head around. Yeah, that’s

Matt Schwartz 34:51

a good question. Then. You know, I it’s a question that is probably answered by different people to some degree in that I guess what I’m saying aim is that I can tell you how we can measure just through a website, the effectiveness of our work. Delivering that product, if you will, let’s say it’s a research report. That is maybe HTML first, which is how we are doing increasingly doing things. So it’s not a PDF.

Ben Freda 35:20

Oh, I love that’s a whole another conversation. Love what you just said, because I feel like I’m constantly talking about this with people, but you’re gone. So

Matt Schwartz 35:27

yeah, so you know, I mean, look, if these are just you just look at basic engagement metrics, it’s pretty straightforward. But I can’t do the translation or the triangulation between, you know, the amount of average site visit, the average number of pages viewed, the industry and organic traffic, versus direct traffic, etc. There are so many different factors, but what we can say is that, you know, more people are visiting your site for longer periods of time, and they are clearly making their way to these valuable pages that you want them to write, we can do analytics on how effective both the traffic patterns are through Google Analytics, or the behavioral page specific analytics with something like crazy egg or hot jar. You know, at the end of the day, the nonprofit in those industries, their job primarily is to get people to engage with their ideas, versus perhaps funding a program that is, let’s say, digging water wells in, you know, Sub Saharan Africa or something, you know, those, those are concrete Pot Projects that maybe get funded. And there are ways that they’re driving that a lot of the nonprofit’s we work with are not actively overwhelmingly, I should say, focused on fundraising. Yep, their site, they are funded, they might funders, so their measures are a little different. So I think, you know, it’s about site engagement, for sure. And then it can be extended out into areas of social about how much are other people following and tracking their content, the website kind of is the hub for some of that activity, but social media has its own thing. Um, you know, we can do things like because we do a lot of brand strategy and positioning and messaging work, you can do perception studies, where you take a look at how people are talking about the organization, through social media and do social listening. And then they were gonna look six months, four months out and see if the new positioning and messaging that actively or accurately and authentically represents who you are, what you do, and why it matters and what you want to be known for. Whether that’s resonating, and whether people believe it, and you’re embodying and perhaps you can see a shift in either how people are talking about our organization, or how much they’re willing to share of that organization’s work. So that

Ben Freda 38:08

that’s a measurable thing. Yeah. Okay. Okay. Yeah, at the website,

Matt Schwartz 38:11

the main part is like, how much are people engaging? How how’s your bounce rate doing? Are you reaching wider audiences on mobile? What’s the traffic breakdown there? All those kinds of standard engagement metrics.

Ben Freda 38:25

And then you can kind of try maybe another way of looking at it too, is like catching the mistakes. So like, are people going to the wrong place when they’re trying to find something? Exactly? Are we going to redirect them we had a chance to, so maybe the mistakes are kind of another way of looking at it too. You know?

Matt Schwartz 38:40

I mean, look, it’s the it’s it’s efficiently getting people to the thing they, you know, they’re two things you’re ideally trying to do outside of engage people with the brand story, right? Like the websites first priority is people come to a nonprofits website, because they’ve heard about you. And they’ve heard that you do something around an issue they care about in all unless they’re doing research for other purposes. You know, you work on education, equity, let’s say, and I’m a person who really cares about education, equity, and I work in the field perhaps, and I know you to do a thing that I might have interest in. Well, the website’s first job is to engage and connect with the person about how you are aligned in your purpose in the values you share, and that you have something meaningful to offer them and ideally, that they have something meaningful to offer you. And once you do that, it is in the knowledge mobilization game about getting audiences to the content, they know they want, as efficiently as possible. Yeah. And revealing to them things you know, it’s the you might also like have ecommerce, yes, yes. That is that all of that work that efficiently getting people to the product has to happen within the context of the brand experience. I’ve very often over the years had to help our UX designers focus on the idea that just the number of clicks it takes to get somewhere, or you know how efficient the navigation is, or whatever, that that is not the top priority. That’s important. But if the person doesn’t, if we haven’t expressed what the brand is about, and the who, who they are, what they do, what they stand for, why does it matter? All of that getting access to information stuff is a lot less meaningful. And all the responsibility is to build meaning to make meaning and make and deliver value around things that folks are aligned about. Why do I care about this issue? Why does it matter to be what do I hope to see in the world by participating in some way, shape or form? What do I hope people will think about me if they know that I am an advocate of this point, interesting, tangible, intangible and aspirational value, it’s all brands are all about delivering that, and the website just happens to be a very important vehicle for making that original connection, and then continuing to deliver that value. You know, I

Ben Freda 41:17

never thought about one of the things you just said, which was, if I’m a supporter of an organization, what are people going to think about me? You know, based on this organization’s reputation, the way they are the way their mailers look, you know, what they say? How is that going to reflect on me, and that I mean, we’re all narcissistic creatures, at some level, it’s in some level in our brain, we care about survival, we care about what people think of us. That’s really interesting. That’s something that really hadn’t crossed my mind at all.

Matt Schwartz 41:49

That’s why brands exist. Brands are the by, you know, the outgrowth of things like heraldry, like brands exist. Right, like and so a brand at the end of the day is just a vehicle that exists, it’s a totem for a conduit of exchange of value, right? Like, why do people wear Nike sneakers? You know, they identify, you know, is it because the sneakers are technically the absolute best sneakers? Maybe? I don’t know, I can tell you that, I don’t wear Nikes, but it’s that’s, you know, I think it’s a hell of a lot more about how you feel about the product, and in your experience with all the different facets, you have to connect to it with their own digital app, their right. Experience, feeling of tying up the laces, and aspirational value is about what does it say about me? What are what do I say, think about myself when I have this? And what do I want other people to think about me now? I’m a nonprofit in the knowledge mobilization, and research space might not focus on that so heavily and that’s fine. I think there’s still something to it, you know, but I’ll say, if you’re the Child Mind Institute is a great example. Well, yeah, if they want the preeminent, and they do, you know, to have the preeminent experts in child brain science, participate and contribute to work for the Child Mind Institute, the way their brand looks, says a lot about and I have an anecdote. I know we’re getting you know, towards the end here, I have a good anecdote

Ben Freda 43:29

We can go over five minutes or something a little bit.

Matt Schwartz 43:34

I’ve got a meeting. But… So, we worked with the Legal Aid Society for about eight years. And we did a and this is the bay there are a lot of legal aid societies. This is the Legal Aid

Ben Freda 43:48

Society and this is New York City one. Yeah,

Matt Schwartz 43:51

you know, they’re the biggest public defender in New York City. They’re one of the biggest public interest law firms in the nation. And that was a project that you know, we did brand strategy, positioning and messaging, redid their logo and identity, and did their website.

Ben Freda 44:10

That’s also a juicy project.

Matt Schwartz 44:14

A great partnership for a long time. And so all the websites and the brand and all of that some of my practice org I actually it’s funny, it’s the last logo I designed and we tried to come up with all these metaphorical logos and I was like it should just be typographic and keep it simple. It should be about like the black and white of the justice system there should be like we are clear about there’s like a strong line the word keep it simple. Anything like that and the tagline justice in every borough.

Ben Freda 44:42

I love that. Love that.

Matt Schwartz 44:44

So the their current director of communications, I think Director is his title. Vincent, he told me that because he took the job while we had been their partner already. And he said, I would not have applied for this job if they didn’t have the quality of website that they had.

Ben Freda 45:06

I love hearing that. Yeah. So

Matt Schwartz 45:08

that pretty much ended. And quite frankly, that goes back to all the brand strategy work that we did to help that group which had 2000 staff understand themselves and understand where they were actually misaligned because there were issues and to create a common purpose of that they were all pulling in the same direction. And it’s my belief that that work is what’s essential. But at the end of the day design is all about context, you everything that is not a part of the natural world. It was designed by human beings. Yeah. And if it was designed by human beings, it was designed to be used by a particular person or people for a particular purpose, or set of purposes within a certain set of circumstances, right. I mean, this is what design is. And it’s all about the context. It’s about helping people navigate the world, make sense of the world, accomplish two things you name it? Well, if your goal is to create experiences that connect folks to brands, through websites, online brand strategy is the best context, you can hope to have to understand what the website ultimately needs to do. So that you are then applying the discipline of user experience design and digital strategy and content strategy and such, and then design user interface design to deliver on those brand ideas. Otherwise, you’re just going to think about it as a website. And so that’s why my background starting as a designer, you know, I got very interested in brand strategy 19 years ago and built out that practice, going back to my writing, background. And I say that to say that the reason that Vincent really felt like this website resonated with him as a place he wanted to go work is because of that. And quite frankly, the primary goal of the website, amongst other things, one of them was to make the get help section more robust for people who needed help, which we did a lot of it was, yes, representing the Legal Aid Society. Great. And then fantastically was a goal. But you know, that the goal of the brand I mean, okay, though, I’m kind of stammering on my own words. I mean, look, the reality is that that a big part of it was to attract the best people in the brand strategy to want to be a part of their practice areas in why they deliver a unique type of service and value and justice to New York City.

Ben Freda 47:32

Oh, yeah. I mean, I was a it’s a secret, but I was a lawyer for two years before doing this. And I was a lawyer in New York City and getting a job at New York. Yeah, Legal Aid. Society is one of the hardest jobs to get in the legal world, New York City, which is bizarre to people who don’t understand it. But if you are in the legal world, that is the height of legal practice in New York.

Matt Schwartz 47:55

If you do public interest law, no doubt about that. So yeah, anyway, you know, I forget exactly how I got on that. But, you know, suffice it to say that, that those connections that through line from the top brands purpose, and a real deep understanding of who and organization is and what makes them tick. And you know, why they exist? Yeah. connecting that to the designed outcomes that we are asked to create, with something like, for example, a data visualization tool. Yeah, it requires understanding what matters to the audience and this idea of brand value. And I guess that’s how we were talking about it and connecting to that, because that’s why people turn to nonprofit brands, because they are experts in issues that they care about. And they understand that organization to be effective in making a difference on that issue that they care about. It’s our job to build brands and design experiences that fully embody and deliver on that promise. And if you do that real well and create a mutually beneficial relationship between the audience and the organization built on those three kinds of brand value tangible, intangible and aspirational value, you’re probably going to do a lot of good work.

Ben Freda 49:26

Yeah. I love that. I love that and it’s really great to learn more about it from you. I mean, we we we have done web design, we do a little web design, we do not do full-scale branding projects, that’s not our sort of sweet spot so it’s an area that I really am interested in learning more about front and meeting people like you who can do it great so that we can put you know send hopefully send clients your way that that needed. But, but really appreciate it has been super interesting and educational for me. I know we are running out of time. Is there anything I did not ask you and I fear that there are about 700 questions I wanted to ask you and I only got through about five of them.

Matt Schwartz 50:06

That’s the part of that could be my fault. And I’m a bit. I’m a bit loquacious.

Ben Freda 50:11

But that’s when you know the conversation is good, right. You’ve been talking about interesting, interesting issues. And that’s why I didn’t get to my other 600 questions.

Matt Schwartz 50:20

No, no, that’s this is this has been great. I appreciate it. Always enjoy conversations like this. So appreciate your time. I actually have had on my list to create a podcast for myself and my company and seems to be impossible for me to get around to it. So maybe one day I’ll chat with you about that.

Ben Freda 50:39

Definitely, definitely. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. Really appreciate it. You bet.

Outro 50:48

Thanks for listening to the Nonprofit Thrive podcast. We’ll see you next time and be sure to click Subscribe to get future episodes.

Stay in the loop

Sign up to be notified about each episode — and for highlights of the tips, tricks, and insights that our guests share with the world.