There is a Better Way: Design Thinking for Nonprofits

Let’s face it, many nonprofits have a hard time unsticking themselves and trying new approaches. Funding structures, management, and lack of time and resources contribute to a sense of monotony and the “daily grind.” These structural issues are real and won’t be shaken overnight, but there are strategies we can use to challenge that thinking and take a leap into something new.

Today, I want to make sure that you are aware of one of those strategies – Design Thinking. Design Thinking is a set of techniques codified by the technology startup industry that increase the odds of creating tools that actually work.

The basic idea is this: If we want to build services that work, we should be trying new approaches quickly and efficiently. Brainstorming new approaches with our constituents and testing those ideas as quickly and inexpensively as possible improves the likelihood of finding innovative approaches that challenge conventual ways of solving systemic issues.

Let’s look at an example.

The Old Way The Design Thinking Way

Sherry is a program director and has an idea. She pitches it to her manager who gets excited. Together, they write a 20-page grant proposal to see the idea funded.

Six months later they get the grant for a two-year pilot program. Sherry hires staff, rents space, and recruits for the program.

Six months in, it’s clear this new innovative program isn’t working. But the grant is clear – services must be delivered and grant reports must be submitted. The program continues until the money runs out.

Sherry is a program director and has an idea. She pitches it to her manager who gets excited. Together they convene a group of their constituents and talk about the idea together. Everyone agrees that it sounds great but won’t work.

Instead, the constituents explain that Sherry is trying to solve the wrong problem (joblessness instead of homelessness). Together they brainstorm a new approach.

Sherry tests this approach with a tiny group of five people. When that is successful, she applies and gets funded to expand the program.


You could say that what Sherry is doing through Design Thinking is just common sense. You’d be right. Design Thinking gives us a structure and process we can follow to help keep us accountable to doing the common-sense thing.

Let’s look at the basic stages of design thinking:

EMPATHIZE: Research the problem, talk with your constituents, make sure you really understand the problem.

Always remember that your constituents are the expert, not you. As an example: we recently worked with a group in New York making a “Yelp for social services.” By talking to people who were homeless they discovered that 80 percent of their constituents had a smart phone and internet access, but that few of them had a credit card which is needed to download even free apps from an app store.

DEFINE: Clearly define the specific problem you’re trying to solve. Think systemically and big picture.

In the nonprofit world we often try to solve symptoms of social issues rather than the causes. By focusing on the deeper needs of our constituents we can make sure that we’re solving problems that actually move us towards a more just society.

IDEATE: Brainstorm around the problem and keep an open mind – any and every idea should be looked at as a possible solution, no matter how ‘off the wall’ it is.

We aren’t going to fix society’s problems by doing things the same way we always have. The ideate phase encourages us to explore anything we can think of. Through this big picture brainstorming we suspend disbelief and make it possible to think of truly innovative ideas that can change the world.

PROTOTYPE: Build a preliminary model of the winning solution for quick and simple testing.

An idea is great, but we need something we can actually test. Prototyping allows us to build a tool or a service without large investments of time, relationships, or money. In the nonprofit world, that might mean very small pilot programs or compensated focus groups with constituents to walk through an idea and get feedback.

TEST: Assess its validity with a small group of constituents.

Now that we have a prototype we can run our test. This is the most important step. It allows us to very quickly learn if our solution has potential. In this case failure isn’t bad, it’s just an opportunity to try something else. This approach can allow us to test a dozen ideas in the time most nonprofits complete a single pilot program.

REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT: This is a lifestyle, not a project. Every time you learn what works or what doesn’t you go back and try to make it better.

Usually, the process involves a lot of post-it notes. 


Other Design Thinking Resources from Tech Impact:


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