Redesigning Muslim Philanthropy in the U.S. 

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An example of uncovering deep empathy in a five-week challenge

In fall 2011, twenty teams of four students each were asked to spend five weeks on the challenge of  “Redesigning 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, but many are not giving at their potential for a variety of reasons – they have a desire to give more and to give more strategically. We could make assumptions, 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 students’ 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 reframe the problem. This is at the core of the design thinking process and proved to be insightful for my own learning.

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 the at the end of the five-week challenge and heard the student presentations.

What struck me was how the students, with limited background and exposureto Muslim communities, let alone the issues facing these communities, were able to identity and articulate the needs of the people they designed for.  Unlike at most meetings I’ve attended at think tanks, government tables, and even in nonprofit organizations, 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 – and about their authentic needs.  They had gone beyond the labels and had identified some implicit emotions that permeate Muslims’ lives, rather than their explicit needs.

The way the students scoped 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, that prevented them from feeling like full citizens, and the prototypes the students presented reflected that depth.

Here are just two of the twenty “points of view” (POVs) that students designed around:

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 slam-dunk solutions that we could walk out the door and implement.  But I hadn’t expected that.  Rather, 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 did.

Design thinking applied to such a complex challenge in a limited amount of time can allow you to articulate emotional needs, reframe a problem and create possible solutions that can be tested and improved upon.