Italians have an expression: fare una bella figura. It means to make a good impression. But more than that, it’s a commitment to present oneself well, to look and act one’s best. It’s not just about good looks or expensive clothing. It’s a personal choice to cultivate grace and style.

There’s a lesson here for nonprofit organizations that are struggling to find the resources to produce effective marketing material. Even on a tight budget it’s possible to create something thoughtful, effective, even beautiful.

1. Don’t underestimate the power of good design. Even a modest investment in a professional designer can elevate an otherwise mediocre piece into something special.

2. Don’t let poor design get in the way of a good message. Remember that your message is competing with an unprecedented level of media noise. Readers typically spend less than a second or two deciding to read new material or toss it out. Even the smallest obstacle (a poor choice of font, a confusing layout, an awkward phrase) is enough to put them off.

3. Good design doesn’t mean fancy design. In fact, it’s often said that the best design is invisible. While a little bit of eye candy can attract attention, no amount of whiz-bang graphics will compensate for weak or confusing content. Equally bad are over-designed pieces that distract readers from core messages with intrusive visuals.

4. Avoid kitchen sink syndrome. Adding extra information doesn’t add extra value. Usually it muddies the water, making it more difficult for readers to understand what’s important or, worse, discouraging them altogether. Stick to your key messages. State them clearly and persuasively, and always give your readers an option to seek more information if they wish.

5. Take advantage of electronic media. Printing and postage are expensive. Save money (and trees) by using e-mail marketing, social media and blogs. Redirect those funds toward copywriting and design. Cultivate a corps of volunteers and press contacts who will publish your organization’s message on their own networks. Be sure your website and blog are properly integrated with social networks so viewers can share, follow, like, retweet or repost your information with a click of a button.

At some point in its evolution – and that point ought to come sooner rather than later – an organization will need the help of a communications design professional. It’s an investment worth making. In fact, it’s a priority.