Think Like a Designer for Greater Impact in Philanthropy

Originally posted on September 17, 2015 on Exponent Philanthropy's PhilanthroFiles Blog

I have spent my career at foundations, nonprofits, think tanks, universities, and multinational organizations. I have enjoyed elucidating the root causes of complex problems, but I have been frustrated many times by the sector’s inability to generate effective solutions.

In 2010, I attended a Stanford alumni event, where I heard a professor speak about design thinking. I had a hunch that this methodology could be powerful in its applications to the work I and others were doing in this sector. Subsequently, as a partner and fellow at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka the, fellow at its Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS), and in other roles, I have been experimenting with different ways to bring this set of tools to the nonprofit sector.

What is design thinking?

I describe design thinking as a fundamentally human-centered problem-solving method for tackling complex issues. Also known as human-centered design, design thinking forces a deep focus on the targeted beneficiary to truly understand his or her explicit and implicit needs.

Observation, immersion, and interviews provide context and insights into behaviors. These learnings contribute to a refined focus, or reframing of the problem, which, in turn, leads to more precisely targeted solutions. Prototypes are then built and tested with beneficiaries to challenge assumptions, learn more, and rapidly surface new solutions.

Much of what has been written to date about this method’s use in the nonprofit sector focuses on its value in helping people identify creative ways to find solutions, often captured in images of white board brainstorms with colorful post-it notes. I believe design thinking’s true power lies in its ability to focus and reframe a problem in a way that is truly meaningful to the beneficiary, and therefore ensure the problem is one worth solving.

Applications to philanthropy

Design thinking may first bring to mind the design of products or services, seemingly one step removed from traditional philanthropy. But the method’s applications are actually a perfect complement to this field in several ways, especially in its ability to engender both rigor and creativity in philanthropic work.

More specifically, for foundations, design thinking can help:

  1. Shape an organization’s internal culture to be collaborative, creative, innovative, and iterative.
  2. Design more impactful experiences with staff, grantees, board members, and other stakeholders.
  3. Gain greater clarity and focus on which part of a complex problem to tackle.

Social problems sit within intricate systems of stakeholders, organizations, and feedback loops, and design thinking can help funders better understand the needs, motivations, and behaviors of the stakeholders and beneficiaries. By engaging directly with them, the funder can avoid making large-scale assumptions and instead make more calculated decisions about the precise point of intervention.

More specifically, the design thinking methodology generates critical “decision-forcing functions,” which are both the most difficult and most important moments of the process. At each step in the iterative design thinking process, funders must make decisions—which user, which need, which framing of the problem, which idea to test, and so on. Whereas these choices might feel like sacrifices at first, they will lead to the eventual design of solutions and strategies that are far more leveraged and impactful because they take into account a deep understanding of the specific populations they are seeking to affect.

Design thinking for greater impact and fulfillment

It is human nature to want to tackle really big problems, and the inability to have impact is often blamed on insufficient human or financial resources. But often the reason a funder is not achieving impact is because he or she lacks adequate focus.

Aiming to serve generic populations like “youth” or “women” will not lead to effective interventions. Does the funder want to help single working mothers living in urban Baltimore who lack professional skills? Or are they interested in developing services for elderly, retired, professional women who want to contribute to society but are not sure where to engage? Without clarity and specificity, it will be impossible to identify the needs worth solving at scale, as the needs of these populations differ so dramatically. By trying to solve for everyone, you end up solving for no one.

I have seen many good people exit careers in the social sector because, despite hard work, they felt ineffective at tackling the massive problems around them. A deep understanding of human motivations, barriers to behavior change, and previously unspoken needs informs a broader view of the system in which those people exist. This allows us to generate breakthrough strategies with true opportunity for impact, and will, in turn, lead to the meaningful fulfillment that drives us in our work.

Getting Unstuck

Design thinking is not just for ‘creatives.’  Design thinking is a useful methodology, and a set of tools, for anyone, especially those working in the nonprofit sector.

If you are running a nonprofit, working in government or a foundation, or involved in a public/private initiative, you are probably struggling to figure out how to do what you can with the resources you have, or how to get more resources so you can do more.  Somehow you are always trying to  stretch what you have – money, resources, space.  You want to serve more, reach more, advocate for more – but with limited resources.

From applying design thinking to my own nonprofit and philanthropic work, here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. we are often solving for the wrong problem;
  2. we need to get out of our heads and go out and talk to people;
  3. don’t assume – ask;
  4. don’t be generous with time – find the stopwatch;
  5. find an interdisciplinary team of thinkers and doers to brainstorm and build with, not just talk to;
  6. institute ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘BUT’ for almost everything;
  7. recognize that the process is iterative;
  8. don’t try to solve for everyone but focus on extreme users;
  9. don’t try to answer the entire problem – find a solution that works and then work upwards from there;
  10. Tell a story

We unconsciously kill creativity at an early age.

We don’t do it to ourselves.  We are naturally wired to be creative.  Just watch a bunch of five year olds with crayons, glue, paper.  We are drawn to create.  But somewhere along the way – adults feel a need to label.  To tell kids whether they are a “creative” or not.  And that sticks.  We take it heart.  I was running a training in the summer, and the group was in the middle of a brainstorming session.  Each member was rapidly putting up crazy ideas on post=its and sharing it with the group.  An older 65 year old gentleman sat back and looked defeated.  He said “none of those ideas are mine.  I was told at a really young age I wasn’t creative.”  I saw before me a 65-year old man transformed into a school boy who had never overcome that label. What he didn’t realize is that he was also not giving himself permission to be creative. Being creative – means removing your inner judge.  It means not accepting the labels others put on you at such a young age. It involves understanding that our natural state is to create, to think, to imagine.  We as adults need to be careful about inadvertently labeling children as ‘creative’ or ‘analytical’.  We need to just encourage them to engage and try new things.  And we also need to be sure to question the labels others have put on us.  Create your own labels.  I never thought I was “creative” – maybe creative with processes and people – but not with art or things.  I still may not design something that will be museum or store-worthy, but making stuff now makes me happy, and the more I do it, the more comfortable I feel calling myself creative.

Sometimes higher education suffocates our basic instincts, and we have to reclaim them

I graduated from Stanford in 1998, and spent the next ten years learning how life really works.  While at Stanford, I was drawn to organizational sociology but was told by some advisors that it was not practical – so I went to economics and international relations instead.  But the entire time I was an economics student – I was fighting with the idea.  The assumptions never made sense.  They were assumptions about people but they didn’t apply to me, or the people around me.  I grew up in a Middle Eastern household in California.  Yes, we were rational at times – but a lot of decisions were made out of emotion.  So no, we are not always rational beings.  And we don’t always make decisions that maximize our utility. Sometimes, we make them because we just have to .  Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but the entire process of studying economics was forcing me to suppress my instinctual observations, and instead impose an analysis that I was told was more academic.   Most of all – we were always ASSUMING.  But I always wondered – why assume when we can just ask?  Why assume, when we can actually watch, observe, and uncover.

So coming back to the Stanford 15 years later, I am learning how to stop turning people into data points, and instead turn the data points into stories.  Each story has layers.  Each story provides hints into what people need.  Each story uncovers a path that someone can take in addressing a need for one person, that usually translates into addressing the needs of many.  It’s the difference between making people into data points, and then putting data points into a regression, and throwing out the outliers. Instead, we can actually focus on the outliers and the rest of the data, and see what it tells us – and then compare it to the trends in the data and see what the bigger story tells us.

Vulnerability is at the root of identifying real solutions

I lived in a land of experts for many years.  I was working at think tanks such as the Carnegie Council, Council on Foreign Relations, World Bank, UN, and the world of philanthropy.  These organizations are rooted in expertise.  People go there to find answers.  They go there to seek direction.  But whensomeone is given the label of an expert –it often comes with an accompanying fear of not being able to expose what you don’t know.  Or publicly acknowledge what questions you haven’t answered or that you are struggling with.  Because at the end of the day, you’re the “expert”.  It is easy to hide behind these titles.

Expertise is important.  We cannot simply take a superficial approach to given problems and issues.  But we need experts, scholars, and leaders to acknowledge what they don’t know.  To see answers in others.  To see that each person is an expert in their own experience. To explore collaborative processes in identifying a solution.

People are not satisfied anymore with people who think they have all the answers.  Because with the internet – we know increasingly that that is impossible.  The questions people ask reveal who are the real experts.

How I became a groupie

How I became a groupie

Many people look at me quizzically when I tell them I’m doing a fellowship at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka ‘the’) this year.  For those who don’t know me, they’re intrigued. “What’s the”  But for those who know me, they often pause, look confused, and ask if I’ve made a career change, or say something like – “I never knew you were into design.”  After 15 years in the nonprofit sector working on a wide range of economic, social and international relations issues, I can understand their confusion.  But my discovery of the design school could not have been more in line with my life’s journey, and arriving at the could not have felt more natural.

I never had a deep crush on a movie star growing up.  Never slept overnight on the sidewalk to see a band. But once I heard about the, I finally could relate to what it must be like to be a groupie. I felt completely giddy about having discovered something that resonated with me at my core.  I first heard about Stanford’s from Professor Banny Banerjee at the Stanford Alumni Association Leading Matters event in 2011 in Washington DC.  He was giving a talk about design thinking and innovation.  In that brief time, Professor Banerjee described the design thinking approach and how it was being applied to real world problems.  It connected many disparate ideas that I had been struggling with for several years.

From the beginning of my career, since I graduated from Stanford, my goal was to have a social impact.  I wanted to dedicate my energy, life and time to economic development and social justice issues both in the US and around the world, especially in predominantly Muslim countries (my family immigrated from Syria). Since my first internships at the Brookings Institution and USAID, to my first job at the World Bank, to working overseas with the UN, to launching several nonprofit organizations, and to running a grantmaking program at a foundation, I spent a lot of time unraveling the ways in which these institutions tick, understanding their underlying systems, and figuring out how each cluster of organizations play a uniquely different role in the larger ecosystem.  I also worked on understanding the different incentive structures that guide people working in academia, think tanks, international organizations, foundations and nonprofit organizations.

But over the past 15 years, I became increasingly dissatisfied as I moved through this landscape.  I believe we have the resources, the brainpower, and a plethora of institutions addressing similar challenges. So why are we barely making a dent in most of the issues we’re tackling?  My conclusions included a mixture of the following analysis:

-       people working in silos and trying to tackle the same issues

-       people fixated on analysis and producing reports, and not on solutions

-       too much competition and too little collaboration

-       lack of vibrant learning networks within and across sectors

-       a scarcity mentality that is suffocating creativity

-       a sector that continually forgets the end user when discussing and addressing the problem

This is an oversimplified summary, but they highlight some of the constraints limiting the nonprofit sector. This status quo is leading to an inefficient allocation of resources and quite simply perpetuating a dull and uninspiring environment. It has become an environment where people often forget the values and idealism that originally drew them to the sector, and become more preoccupied with climbing the organizational ladder.

Where people become more preoccupied with how they move up the organizational ladder than on having an impact in their work.  Even though they

So when I arrived at the Stanford alumni event in 2011, I was uninspired.  The presentation by Professor Banerjee reignited my passion for this work and helped me imagine new ways to approach these complex global social and economic issues.  Here are some of the points he made during his lecture, which both addressed my frustrations and also provided concrete ways to develop real-world solutions that have an impact:

-       He spoke about the need to put the end users at the center of the design process, making the users the expert in the process.  It showed how people could both introduce empathy into their work and remind them why they were even there in the first place.  And best of all, it makes for better solutions because you are not assuming things that can be easily answered by simply asking some questions.

-       He showed how to move beyond analysis to developing solutions to a given challenge.

-       He talked about how to get multidisciplinary teams to work together and how to help them develop a common language, which is often the biggest hurdle.

-       He discussed how creativity can be incorporated into addressing these complex multidimensional problems, so that creativity is not relegated to the arts or to product designers.

The’s existence validated my disgruntlement with the status quo. It connected some very complex dots that had been acknowledged but that sat distantly scattered in my head.  It breathed new life and energy into a sector I was about to leave because I did not see viable alternatives.  It was an open invitation to explore, learn and collaborate. 

I had only one choice – as a new groupie, I had to figure out how to get into the show. 


Is the for real? My experience as a partner.

Following the Leading Matters event, I went to The Farm to meet with members of the team.  I wanted to explore a partnership, so I could learn more about their methodology and see if it lived up to what I had heard. Mostly, I wanted to see if this place was for real.

I met with Sarah Stein Greenberg, the managing director, and Adam Royalty, a fellow at the time, to discuss the’s approach and what they look for in a project partner.  When Sarah said, “We like partners who can present our students with problems that are complex and messy,” I knew I’d come to the right place.  In addition to my work at the Doris Duke Foundation, I’d been working on issues affecting Muslim communities in the U.S. for the past five years as the director of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute at USC.  I found myself sitting in messy on a daily basis. There were so many challenges that needed unpacking, so many people across the country are working hard to address.  Many pioneers who work in these communities are overworked, burned out and disillusioned.  The field could really use new problem-solving approaches to invigorate the space and, hopefully provide concrete solutions.

So I presented a few community challenges to Sarah and Adam, ranging from the mundane to the extreme – and their response reaffirmed my excitement.  They were intrigued by the challenges that were the messiest to tackle.  They’re messy because they are complex, and messy because they are issues not normally embraced in a university setting.  Sarah and Adam wanted to dig deeper into the issues around Muslim philanthropy, which would require students to explore Muslim’s religious identity and their relationship with money and giving - two very private topics that we’ve been taught from a young age to avoid discussing in public.

I scoped the challenge with the team and the challenge was presented to 80 Stanford bootcamp students in the fall of 2011.  20 teams of 4 students were asked to spend five weeks on the challenge of  “Resdesigning Muslim Philanthropy in the U.S.”  The goal was not to address the underlying theology behind Muslim giving, but to explore how Muslims feel about their current giving, and how we could help them maximize their giving potential.  I was working on the assumption that Muslim Americans have a desire to give philanthropically, but many are not giving  are their potential for a wide range of reasons and they have a desire to give more, and to give more strategically. We could assume why that is the case – but we needed to really learn more.  So the students set out to apply the design thinking process to this challenge.   

Since this was the student’s first team challenge of the quarter, the’s goal was not necessarily to have them produce fully completed prototypes that addressed the stated need.  Instead, the’s goal with this challenge was to provide the students opportunities to conduct empathy interviews and to re-frame the problem. This is at the core of the design thinking process, and what proved to be so insightful for my learning, and what can inform the broader field. 

The students spent the next five weeks interviewing, framing and reframing the problem, designing low-resolution prototypes and testing them with end users.  The teams interviewed a wide range of Muslims, from recent Somali immigrants to second generation Stanford students.  Each team designed for a different user.  I returned to Stanford at the end of the five-week challenge and heard the presentations from the student teams.

What struck me during those presentations is how the students, with limited background and exposure to Muslim communities, let along the issues facing Muslim communities across the country, were able to identity and articulate the needs of the people they designed for.  Unlike most meetings I’ve attended at think tanks, government tables, and even in nonprofit organizations servicing these communities, these students were not talking about Muslims as a monolith.  They were not lumping them by class, culture, age or religious school of thought.  They were talking about Muslims – about real Muslims – about their real needs.  They had gone beyond the labels, and identified some emotional needs that permeate their life, rather than the technical needs.

 The way the students scoepd the challenge was far from clinical.  It unveiled some of the root causes that kept people from giving.  It uncovered the pain that these communities were facing, preventing them from feeling like full citizens, and the prototypes they presented reflected that layer of depth.

Some of the “points of view” (POVs) that students designed around were:

A Muslim in America who is skeptical of charity needs to establish new trust relationships around giving because he has been forced to give out of guilt rather than out of a connection with the cause.

Confused Muslim American youth need to feel empowered and recognized for contributing to something they care about because they need to develop a sense of identity that’s true to themselves.


The presentations did not necessarily provide a slamdunk solution to the challenge that we could walk out the door and implement.  But I had not expected that after five weeks.  But each of the presentations provided an invaluable nugget of information about the emotional state of Muslims in America, and why this state is holding them back from giving.  The nuggets also emerged from feedback to the tested prototypes.  It was just as helpful to hear about what didn’t work, as it was to hear about what delighted their testers.

Needless to say, I was no longer a groupie after this. I was a convert to this approach. On how applying design thinking to such a complex challenge in a limited amount of time can allow you to go deep, articulate deep needs, reframe a problem, and create solutions that can be tested in the hopes of finding a sustainable solution.

Nine months later, I packed up my apartment in Washington DC, and moved to Palo Alto to spend the academic year as a fellow at the  I was ready for the full immersion.  

Design Thinking and Philanthropy – my focus while on The Farm

During my 10-month fellowship (2012-13) at the, I’m looked at the intersection of design thinking and philanthropy in three ways: 

1. How might design thinking be applied to a foundation’s existing program?  I was a program officer at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, which aims to improve Americans’ understanding of Muslim cultures through arts and media.  I worked on this since its inception in 2007.  We had a fairly modest budget of $1.5 million a year in payouts, and given the scope of the mandate, I and my colleagues at DDFIA worked very hard to stretch those dollars as far as we can. 

 I’m grateful to work with a talented team at DDFIA, and I wanted to acquire more tools with which to push our grantmaking farther.  So during my time at Stanford, I worked on answering the questions of how can design thinking improve our grantmaking? How can it be used as a tool to better frame the problems we are addressing?  How can it help us expand our echo chamber, and increase the creativity of the ideas we are considering, and how might it help us strengthen our relationship with our grantees?

2. How might design thinking advance other philanthropic models? 

Because I found design thinking to be transformative to my work, I wanted to share the process with others in the field of philanthropy, whether they’re with national foundations, community foundations, family foundations, donor circles, impact investing initiatives, venture funds etc. 

I explored where and when foundations can apply design thinking to better define the problem they are trying to solve, or how to integrate innovation and creativity within the foundation and among grantees.    

3. How might we launch a new project related to Philanthropy in Muslim communities?

Building off of our experiment with the 2011 Bootcamp Students I wanted to refine and build off of their findings to see if we might launch a series of solutions in response to the challenge of how to redesign Muslim philanthropy in America.

Muslim communities are wired to give.  Zakat (an individual’s obligatory annual donation, calculated as a percentage of his/her wealth) and Sadaqa (voluntary charity) are central to the Islamic faith, with Zakat being one of Islam’s five pillars.  But when talking to Muslim Americans about their charitable giving, most speak about their desire to give more directly to people in need, a desire to see the impact of their giving, and the absence of trust needed to give confidently.  Therefore, most American Muslims say they feel ill equipped to give, especially in a way that will have an impact.  While at the d.shool, I‘m applied the design thinking process to this challenge.