Different Ways Nonprofits Are Using Design Thinking to Solve Problems and Achieve Impact | Beth's Blog

Different Ways Nonprofits Are Using Design Thinking to Solve Problems and Achieve Impact


Note from Beth:  Several years ago, I was got trained in design thinking facilitation methods using Luma and have incorporated these techniques into my consulting and training practice.  I have also learned a lot from other nonprofit colleagues who have use these techniques, including Brian Reich (see this blog post about his design thinking work to solve the refugee crisis) who has just published a book on innovation called “The Imagination Gap” and my colleagues, Ted Frickes and Micheal Silberman at the Mobilization Lab.    When I noticed the ImpactKit project, I was curious.   Mike Radke agreed to share this post about the work.

Different Ways Nonprofits Are Using Design Thinking to Solve Problems and Achieve Impact

One of the most admirable things about the people who run non-profits can also be their achilles heel: they love helping people. Often this means the business and strategy that supports innovation in the social sector is underdeveloped. But, in my experience, this is merely because those who rule the business strategy domain don’t speak the language of mission driven organizations, who are put off by any attempt to reduce their work to fit onto forms and spreadsheets.

This is exactly why the practices of Design Thinking and Systems Theory has enjoyed such welcome from the social sector. They are speaking the language of people, and empathy, and systemic change. The reception has been warm, but the adoption has been slow, primarily because Design Thinking and Systems Theory need to take a dose of their own medicine and adapt to be relevant and resonant with this new audience.

Drawing on more than decade leading strategic change in the social sector and my training in psychology and design thinking, I saw a huge opportunity to build a tool that leveraged the experience and language of the social sector to introduce Design Thinking and Systems Theory and an innovation flow that keeps people at the forefront, and gets changemakers back to the front lines with new ideas quickly.

This tool is called ImpactKit. My team at ION Studios curated 110 universally adoptable methods of social change and paired them with 10 custom mini-workshops that were designed to be led by and for social sector organizations to build their own innovation workflows.

We have been testing these workshops for the last few months and have had some interesting early results. We took an early prototype with us to Amsterdam to THNK’s annual gathering of Social Entrepreneurs, where we challenged their Creative Leaders to think about the Syrian refugee crisis. That group used our gap analysis exercise to find an opportunity to give refugees on the move a chance to add value to local communities while maintaining the dignity of earning an income and doing the work they engaged in at home.

In December we sat down with an emerging learning organization with ambitious plans to reach a billion people with a complex array of products and services. The team at this organization knew they were onto something special, but were struggling to engage donors in supporting the organization writ large, not just individual projects. After some empathetic listening, we found it was because there was no value proposition in the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. So we used a mapping and communications workshop to layout a Theory of Impact and sequencing strategy to help them secure their first major core funder.

Finally, about a month ago, we were working a small social-enterprise working on poverty alleviation through last-mile solutions. They felt stuck. After having have had some early success, they were being confronted with criticism of lack of awareness of the scale or scope of the problem. The leadership has covered this issue in the NGO sector for years, and were well aware of the depth and breadth, but they were struggling to translate that to a business whose funders were looking for returns on impact and profit. We worked through a day long stakeholder-centered innovation workshop with the test-print of ImpactKit. In order to scale both their impact and their bottom line, we found an opportunity for them to pivot towards a business-to-business model rather than a direct service model.

As the first run of ImpactKits go out around the world, we have picked up the following 5 tips about using ours and other’s tools for bringing Design Thinking and Systems Theory to social impact:

  1. Mind the gaps

In the business world they look for the Blue Ocean, the uncontested space where there is a ton of money to be made. In the social sector we need to look for the gaps, the unaddressed nodes in a network of need, so that the entire problem is addressed.

  1. Failure does not mean harm

Design Thinking moves fast, and relies on “failure” to learn and iterate. That’s a concept that can be disquieting for those whose mantra is “first do no harm.” Trust the process, and trust yourself. The practice of Design Thinking requires that you are constantly seeking input and feedback from stakeholders, so will know right away if something new is doing harm, and your conscience will help you stop it.

  1. Know your role

Most of us know that the social sector is a collaborative exercise, but the myths we tell are those of heroic individuals or organizations who are capable of single handedly eradicating a problem. Once you tightly define your role (or roles) in a system of change, you will better know who you should be working with, what your next service should be, and where the need has shifted to allow you to sunset a project.

  1. Design for complexity, communicate for simplicity

John Meada (master Designer and Technologist) offers this definition of Simplicity: ‘Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.’ Systems Theory allows you to map the complexity and nuance that is necessary to build adaptive organizations and innovative interventions. But when you go to your funder or stakeholder, they aren’t starting from scratch. Know what is obvious to them and find what will be meaningful. Design Thinking is a natural process for extracting those “simple” nuggets from the system.

  1. Get the innovation/implementation balance right

The process of innovation needs to include space for wild and unimplementable ideas, and those of us who have worked with constrained budgets are prone to being uncompromisingly pragmatic. Make sure that you identify specific times in your innovation workflow for open and divergent thinking and others for pragmatic, implementation-constrained exercises.


Michael Radke helps social enterprises to achieve the radical social change they envision through his innovation consultancy ION Studios, and is designing a new type of cultural institution dedicated to helping people understand people as co-founder of The Ubuntu Lab.

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  1. […] news as a result of its early association with computer and software design. The steps of design thinking are simple: develop a prototype. Get it out to end-users. Find out what works. Find out, with equal […]

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