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 d.school), 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:
- Shape an organization’s internal culture to be collaborative, creative, innovative, and iterative.
- Design more impactful experiences with staff, grantees, board members, and other stakeholders.
- 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.