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Making Your Mission Possible with Design Thinking

Emily Halpern
November 22, 2019

This blog post was originally published by Giving Tree Associates.

As a mission-driven nonprofit professional, it is probably safe to say you are already a fan of design thinking without even knowing it. Design thinking is a problem-solving methodology that invites creativity, collaboration, and iteration in order to produce solutions that work for a clear audience.

Often referred to as “human-centered design”, at its core, design thinking puts the user first. At nonprofit organizations, our end users are typically those receiving services, participating in our programs, or making donations. With a focus on asking the right question and therefore solving the right problem, design thinking asks its practitioners to answer as a user would answer. What would our donors say should be in our 5-year growth plan? How would our program participants recruit more volunteers for our organization?

Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, says design thinking allows us to “integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” IDEO’s The Field Guide To Human-Centered Design breaks it down into three phases:

How does this relate to my nonprofit? 

Nonprofits are trying to solve messy, complex problems that could save or change lives. More often than not, these problems require a dynamic and strategic approach. This is where design thinking comes in. Let’s take, for example, designing a school-based grief counseling program that is struggling to recruit new participants even though the teachers say it’s an important service for students. What’s the disconnect?  

Enter design thinking. One possible sticking point in this is example is that the teachers seem to be dictating what the students want and need. Using the phases outlined above, Design Thinking would tell us to bring students into the center of the process, making sure empathy is at the core of everything we do. 

For us development focused professionals, I have some good news: design thinking can also help us reassess our fundraising programs to engage more donors and bring in additional dollars. Think of the deep relationship you would build if you brought a new donor into the process of evaluating your donor recognition strategy. Chances are that person would learn a whole lot more about your organization and feel invested enough to continue giving regularly. Better yet, donors love to hear that your organization is using the latest methodology in solving social problems to serve your constituents more effectively and efficiently. Win, win.

Whether it’s a new program, donor recognition opportunity, or goal for our organization, design thinking can help us get there by flipping the script. It’s not about what we, the nonprofit professionals, think is best based on our years of experience. It actually encourages practitioners to put on child-like glasses where everything is new again. It’s about walking a mile in our constituents’ proverbial shoes and taking creative approaches to solving their problems in order to make that walk a bit smoother next time.