There are different types of tired. There’s the quiet tired that comes after an average day, because it’s late and you’ve watched enough television to dull your senses and calm the caffeine that daily pulses through your veins. There’s the noisy tired that stays with you all day, reminding you of your never-ending To Do list, taunting you with the minutia that interrupts and throws you off course. And there’s the tired that comes after a long day of good, hard work—work that you are proud of, work borne out of your own passion, eliciting a deep and restful slumber from which you wake with energy to bound out of bed, and ride forward to conquer the world again.
And then there’s a kind of tired I experienced for years. It wasn’t a physical exhaustion, but a mental one. It told me that I had gone astray, that I was on the wrong path, that something wasn’t quite right.
Folksinger Harry Chapin talked about good tired and bad tired. Bad tired comes from winning other people’s battles, following other people’s agendas and dreams, and at the end of the day, there is very little of you in there. Good tired comes after a day of fighting your own battles, chasing your own dreams, living your own days.
I was bad tired and running out of strength, or at least interest, to continue along the same course. Something had to change.
My design career began the way many do, I imagine. I burst out of college with an intense passion to become a noted designer with award-winning work for well-paying clients.I grew in my career, working alongside designers who supported, challenged, mentored and inspired me. I loved my co-workers and enjoyed design work, but I found that most of the projects had little to do with what I felt was important. Work felt off-balance and it just wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped.
From the beginning, I recognized the power of designers and illustrators. We could make others rich. We could convince consumers (and even ourselves) to buy the more attractive box. We could guide (or misguide) political choices. We could create desire, stir sympathies, alter moods and even start trends. But at the end of the day, we sometimes found that being on someone else’s team, helping them get the gold, felt a bit unbalanced.
I was hearing a lot about sustainability—environmental, economic, even agricultural sustainability—and it occurred to me that I needed to think about my own personal sustainability. What happens when I quit, retire, expire? Am I “nutrition” for the next generation? Will the world be a better place because I was here? I wanted to leave my fingerprint. But what could I do?
I determined that I needed my own Mission Statement, a guideline for my career path. It seemed so obvious, but it was a light-bulb moment that set me on a new journey. In examining what was important to me, and what I brought to the table, I decided I wanted to use my talent to help nonprofits. If I couldn’t cure a social ill, at least I could help get it noticed.
Through a mutual friend, I found a local nonprofit in need of a visual transfusion. They had a fundraising event coming up and needed a “look.” I was still, of course, working my day job, but I was content spending evenings imbuing visual delight in a dark and poorly-kerned world.
It was wonderful. I had found the balance I was seeking by helping them step up to look more professional. I was helping a worthy cause. But then my castle in the sky crumbled at my feet. My contact, who had been enthusiastically approving all my designs (without showing them to her superiors), met me the day the files were due, presumably for the hand-off. Without looking me in the eye, she shared the news: the board of directors didn’t like the direction and asked her to HIRE—yes, pay—someone else to start over. I was devastated.
My friend became our mediator and helped sort out the trouble, paving the path for lessons learned, creating guidelines to help others avoid missteps. He helped soothe an experience that might have stopped my efforts cold.
Soon after, I joined the local AIGA Board of Directors, citing that I wanted to use my skills to give back to the community. I was given the brand new position of Community Outreach Chair and told to create opportunities for other designers as well. I had the thrill and terror of a blank canvas before me.
My sour gratis design experience became kindling for my first event, titled Pro Bono: Why Do It & How to Avoid the Pitfalls. From the audience, a dozen joined me, and together we formed a committee, which I called Art with Heart. I led the meetings, discussing the problems that affected our city and how design, or designers, could have an effect. We eventually focused on “at-risk” and homeless children, as they were truly victims of circumstance.
We wanted to not only offer pro-bono work, utilizing the new guidelines, but also offer our time, leading the kids on artistic explorations, journeying past what others were offering. We researched local nonprofits that served this audience, pinpointing those that were underserved so that we could have a meaningful impact. As we listened to representatives speak to us, we found a consistent subtext: these children suffered from low self-esteem. Their problems stemmed from a variety of sources including absent or abusive authority figures, school bullies or gangs who preyed upon their situations, and dysfunctional or non-existent family structures.
As artists, we know that creativity is strong medicine. Who doesn’t remember sketching frustrations away, drawing horns on the evil math teacher pictured in the school newspaper, or aspiring to a new future in a fantasy composition of your amazing dream house? Even on the smallest level, creativity can alter moods. On the grandest level, it can change lives.
All at once, I found that the ideation and administration of Art with Heart took up most of my mental resources—I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was thrilled at the possibilities to help these kids. The weight was heavy, but at the same time, it gave me outstretched and eager wings. Through the magic of e-mail, the complex system of a volunteer organization became manageable, but required more and more of my spare time, including lunches, weekends and wee early morning hours, fueled by passion and a growing responsibility. Moving forward together, with a community of industry peers, our endeavors developed quickly into a network, directing caring individuals towards deeply meaningful projects. We created opportunities based on the needs of our new charity partners, as well as the interests of our growing volunteer base.
Our first effort was simple: prepare and serve food at a soup kitchen. We named the program SoulFood and signed up at the Orion Center, a drop-in center for homeless teens. The first meal served was in February of 1998 and we’ve done it monthly ever since, with standing ovations for our creative meals from the young and hungry crowd.
With no shortage of interested volunteers, we added other programs that worked for various schedules and interests. We’ve hosted Self Portrait Workshops, teaching new skills to the kids, instilling a greater sense of confidence. Our InterGenerational Book Project has linked homeless children with senior citizens, guided by a designer, who leads them through the process of writing and illustrating their own stories.
We created an art therapy activity book called Oodles of Doodles for Your Noodle. Almost 100 designers and illustrators contributed, making it both an exciting collector’s piece, as well as a significant workbook for hospitalized children who are bored, lonely and scared. Thanks to the Ideas That Matter grant from Sappi, Inc., the book enjoyed a second printing and has been given away to over 13,000 children across North America.
Oodles became very popular and successful, and it soon became evident that Art with Heart no longer fit within AIGA’s mission. With popularity, came much more work. I had a major life decision to make, as I could no longer balance my day job with my passion and dedication to Art with Heart. I had to let it go or let it grow. With seven years of experience now, but in the worst economy I’ve ever known, I took a leap of faith, quit my job, applied for Art with Heart’s own nonprofit status and started to freelance to make ends meet.
That was in February of 2003. We were awarded our 501©(3) status four months later and the new board of directors voted to pay me a part-time salary. This is the first time I’ve ever received money for my Art with Heart work. I felt a mixture of both guilt and elation. When funding allows, I hope to go full time and eventually have paid staff to help in the effort. In the meantime, the board and I hammered out new strategies, mission, goals and a vision for Art with Heart.
Our new mission is reflective of our desire to include others in the creative industry, not just graphic designers, and focuses on helping children in crisis by empowering them through self-expression and creativity. We seek to enrich childrens’ creative lives, foster self-confidence and emotional clarity, improve communication and artistic skills, provide diversion and a sense of control. With this direction, we hope to grow and create more publications that matter to other kids suffering as well.
I still do design work in order to pay bills and keep my creative juices flowing, but I am content and happy knowing that the children Art with Heart touches are witness to the healing potential of art, and that I am empowering others to turn their good intentions into action.
Art with Heart’s future now depends upon the benevolence of others and their belief in what we are accomplishing. Together we are crafting a legacy in the lives and hearts of the children we serve. I know that this path is one less traveled, but it is the one I want to be on. I am finally sleeping well, knowing that I am able to use my talents to make a lasting and consequential difference.
Using Your Power For Good
What inspires you? What social injustice or situation pushes your buttons? There is probably a nonprofit in existence that could use your talents, time or funds. Inspire others to join you. If nothing seems to fit and you are up to the challenge of creating your own, be sure to consider each step carefully:
Evaluate the need
Is this the best solution? Who does similar things? Others might be able to act as your fiscal agent, if you propose a project and help them see it through. Conduct exhaustive research to back up your decision to go forward.
Put it in writing
Be sure that you can communicate your idea to others in a brief soundbite. Back it up with a business plan that outlines your audience, the problem at hand and the steps you will take to solve it. Make sure it is thorough and well thought out.
Meet and greet
Meet with major stakeholders, including volunteers, community leaders, potential donors and future “clients.” Know what you are asking of them: do you want their feedback, their involvement or help identifying potential challenges?
Seek out a board of directors
Look for individuals with various skills and backgrounds, with a passion for what you are trying to accomplish. They should be well-connected and be able help with fundraising. They will directly affect your success or failure, as they will help set policies, priorities and strategies.
Find a lawyer
Find a lawyer who specializes in nonprofit law. They can help guide you through the piles of paperwork. You will need to choose a name for your organization, file for your articles of incorporation, as well as file the federal papers required.
The majority of grants are given to 501©(3) organizations because donors are much more likely to fund something that gives them a tax benefit. Writing an effective grant takes time, so identify which ones you plan on applying for and keep a calendar to remind you of upcoming due dates. Meet with potential donors, do research, follow leads, plan fundraising events.
Keep the dream alive
By creating a team of others who care about your project or organization, you are ensuring that your efforts will continue. Evangelize, preach, get more people involved. Stay true to your mission, plan for the future, do good and feel good. ca