About Design Thinking Philanthropy

Hello! My name is Nadia Roumani and I am the Director of Stanford University's Effective Philanthropy Lab, which is housed the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS) and a Lecturer at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka. d.school).  From 2014-15, I was the  Walter and Esther Hewlett Fellow at Stanford PACS.

Over the past fifteen years I have had the opportunity to sit on both sides of the table in the nonprofit sector - I have been both the grant seeker and grant maker multiple times over.  Based on these experiences, I know that a more dynamic, innovative, nimble, and responsive nonprofit sector is possible, but it requires both sides to reflect on their processes and to experiment with new ways of approaching messy problems and identifying innovative solutions. This site is my contribution to that conversation.

I was introduced to design thinking in 2011 and I have found it transformative for my work - increasing my impact, making the process more fun and participatory, and reminding me to put people back at the center of the process, no matter how audacious the challenge.

What is design thinking? 

The design thinking process, as taught at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (“d.school”), contains five steps:

1.     Identifying users and uncovering their deep, often implicit and underlying needs;

2.     Using a process of defining the opportunity hypothesis (or point of view or problem statement) around which the designer/practitioner will focus;

3.     Ideating, or generating, developing, and testing ideas;

4.     Prototyping low-resolution solution(s) to the defined point of view; and

5.     Testing and iterating on the solution until there is proven impact.

Why design thinking is a powerful tool for your toolbox, especially if you work in the nonprofit sector

Design thinking, also referred as human-centered design, is a powerful tool that can help foundations and nonprofits apply a disciplined, scaffolded process to solving messy problems, setting organizational or programmatic strategies, increasing creativity and innovation, and improving the internal organization and team culture. 

After applying design thinking to my own grant making portfolio while working with a foundation and to launching a nonprofit organization focused on increasing philanthropic giving, and running design thinking workshops for foundations and nonprofit organizations around the world, the following are areas where I think design thinking is especially helpful:

  • Ensuring organizations are solving the right problem
    • Design thinking's focus on defining the underlying needs of the target users, articulating the underlying assumptions of one's theory of change, and isolating specific user needs to target, allows an organization to more strategically allocate its resources to addressing specific problems. 
  • Improving an organization's internal processes and culture. 
    • Applying radical participation among staff - Most organizations usually don't utilize the full talent and potential of its employees. They are often working in silos, unable to contribute their full selves to their work life.  The design thinking process invites people to bring their full self into the process - especially their ability to empathize and their creativity, two components that are often not invited into the front door of their work space.
    • Applying radical brainstorming  - the nonprofit sector is often riddled with a  culture of scarcity, leading nonprofits and foundations to focus on programming within constraints rather than imagining the possibilities.  Design thinking's process of applying radical brainstorming helps staff think about what is possible first, and then apply the constraints afterwards. 
  • Improving Foundation Grantmaking Processes. 
    • Grantees’ creativity can be limited by a foundation’s grantmaking process. If you ask someone a narrow question with a stated deliverable, you are likely to get a narrow answer and constrained solution. But if you ask people open-ended questions around big challenges—and you provide them with a creative and innovative way to engage with that challenge—you likely will uncover a wider array of needs and insights, gather a wider set of solutions, and increase the likelihood of a valuable collaboration. There is much room within foundations’ grantmaking processes to encourage greater creativity and innovation both internally and with those seeking to engage the foundation from the outside.

This site aims to document insights, experiments, and learnings from the many workshops, events, panels, experiments, and classes that I have completed with amazing colleagues at Stanford and across the country. I welcome your feedback, case studies, and reflections. Please e-mail me at nadia@stanford.edu

My experience with design thinking, the Stanford d.school, and PACS

In 2011, I was a d.school project partner for the foundational d.school course, “Design Thinking Bootcamp: Experiences in Innovation and Design,” where I had the opportunity to challenge 80 Stanford graduate students to redesign the American-Muslim philanthropic experience, post-9/11. The students’ findings, and my experience in that process were  transformational and exposed me to the power of applied design thinking.

In Sept 2012, I was invited to be one of three inaugural d.school fellows where I had the incredible gift of applying design thinking to my grant making portfolio while still working at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and I also applied it to the launch of a philanthropic start up.  At the foundation I applied design thinking methods when revising the strategy for the grantmaking portfolio I was managing at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. From 2007 to 2013, I was a consultant program officer for DDFIA’s Building Bridges Program, which aims to improve Americans’ understanding of Muslim cultures through arts and media. I was grateful to work with a talented team at DDFIA, and I wanted to acquire more tools with which to push our grantmaking further. During my fellowship, I was trying to answer the question: How can design thinking improve our grantmaking? How can it be used as a tool to improve the framing 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?

In September 2013, I returned to the d.school as a lecturer and PACS visiting practitioner. Over the course of that year, I ran over a dozen workshops for foundations, nonprofit organizations, and companies across the country, as well as some internationally. This website attempts to capture a summary of those workshops, as well as lessons learned from across the wide range of experiments. I also worked with wonderful colleagues to run three courses where we looked at crowdsourcing ideas in response to a bold challenge, we tackled food systems, and we taught a quarter-long course connecting design thinking, systems thinking and strategic philanthropy. Class overviews are provided in this site.

I am thrilled to return to Stanford again for the 2014-15 academic year to be a Hewlett Fellow at PACS and Lecturer at the d.school and focus on building upon this work and exploring how to integrate design thinking into strategic philanthropy.