Can nonprofits design our way to a better future?

Photo by Nancy Ruegg.

One of our grantees has adopted a toolkit used by the for-profit product development world, and it seems to be working.

We live in a chaotic world, where the lay of the land is shifting under our feet and it's hard to imagine a clear path forward. This is a time when we need to try new approaches and strategies. And we need to ask bigger and more insightful questions so we can achieve a different, more hopeful future.

In September 2015, that thinking prompted my team at the Brainerd Foundation to bring in Beth Kanter to lead us and our grantees in a design lab about how our foundation might make the most of our spend out. A few months later, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that one of our grantees — the League of Conservation Voters — had been inspired to use human-centered design thinking to facilitate a strategic planning session of their own. Shortly thereafter, LCV staff sought out formal training from LUMA Institute, and now this design process is part of their tool kit.

My team is intrigued by LCV's adoption of design thinking — a tool developed by the for-profit sector to design products and experiences from toothbrushes and iPhone apps to heart monitors and customer service systems. As we reflect on our foundation's twenty years of grantmaking, we're documenting our investments and trying to cultivate a culture of shared learning. So, I sat down with grantee Hope Rippeon, Senior VP of State Capacity Building for the League of Conservation Voters, to talk about her organization's use of human-centered design thinking. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.

Design thinking forces you to choose, prioritize, develop, and evaluate real solutions.

Michelle: What makes design thinking different from other facilitation tools?

Hope: Design thinking is a problem-solving process that starts with the people experiencing the problem and is intended to develop new solutions that address their specific needs. It grounds the discussion in what people are experiencing in their daily lives. It also funnels the conversation toward designing and prototyping, rather than just exploring ideas. It forces you to choose, prioritize, develop, and evaluate real solutions. Design thinking also helps reveal consensus, as people often arrive separately at the same idea.

I believe that the reason we came up with break-through ideas and new thinking was exactly because of the design thinking process.

Michelle: Has design thinking changed LCV's culture or strategies?

Hope: Definitely. We are still seeing the ripple effects from the first time we used it with a group of state and national executive directors. After that meeting, people told us that they really liked the ideas that emerged from the meeting, though they were uncertain about the design thinking process. But I believe that the reason we came up with break-through ideas and new thinking was exactly because of the process. I've planned and hosted these meetings for years, and this one was different. People told me that this was the first time it felt truly inclusive.

Michelle: What are you most excited about with design thinking? What drives you to keep using it?

Hope: I like that it keeps people active and engaged. Our meetings have become more productive because people aren't just sitting around a table in their heads. And it makes it fun. There is also time built in for people who need private time to think. So, it helps balance participation. It's shaken up our meetings; they feel different.

Michelle: How did you learn to use design thinking?

Hope: I was trained by the LUMA Institute in 2016. It was a two-day training introducing tools and teaching when and how to apply them. LUMA organizes its tools into three groups: tools for Looking, Understanding, and Making.

Drawing that says Looking Understanding Making

I've since come to appreciate that it takes skill to choose the right exercises for the situation; that comes with practice. And I can more easily move between these tools now. A problem will come up and I'll know, for example, that it's a challenge around understanding, so we need to do an Understanding exercise before we can move on to Making. I tend to apply this lens to a lot of my work now, not just meetings. So, design thinking has changed the way I approach my work.

LUMA's model has so many exercises to choose from and you are encouraged to make up our own exercises. Once you get the framework down, the world is your oyster. We've created our own prototype forms specific to each meeting. This has been especially helpful, as it provides a structure for participants to develop concepts for the team to evaluate. And designing the form requires the meeting planners to be clear about what they want the group to achieve.

Michelle: How have you adapted this business tool to the nonprofit sector?

Hope: In the LUMA training, the other attendees were mostly designers in the for-profit space. So, naturally they use design thinking a little differently than we do. More often than not, nonprofits are designing ideas rather than things. But if you think of the ideas as things in and of themselves to design, you start to get more concrete and practical, and less in the clouds.

I don't think that there's a wrong place for design thinking. I think it could be applied to any situation.

Michelle: Tell me about a time when design thinking didn't work for you.

Hope: We used it at our annual conference with 200 people and had mixed results. It was difficult because the groups were so big and we had too little time. I got them into the creative work too quickly and they were confused. The same pace worked in our staff retreat, so I mistakenly thought it would work at the conference. The lesson at the conference was that shared context is important.

If people have shared context then you can quickly go through the Understanding phase. My mistake at the conference was choosing the wrong exercise to build that shared context. But I'm confident that had I chosen a different exercise, it would have worked. I don't think that there's a wrong place for design thinking. I think it could be applied to any situation. But I do think there are right and wrong exercises and even approaches for each situation.

Michelle: Do you see other people in your network using design thinking?

Hope: LCV's emerging leaders are using it. And I recently partnered with Conservation Voters for Idaho for a one-day design lab with millennials in Boise. They loved it. And they were so appreciative of the opportunity to learn about design thinking. And I keep hearing about how other emerging leaders in our network are using it too.

You shouldn't use a tool just because it's fancy, new, and fun. It needs to meet your objectives and desired outcomes.

Michelle: What do you wish you would have known before you started using design thinking?

Hope: When I started, I thought that it would be a big, involved, complicated process. But now I understand it's actually something that you can just have in your hip pocket for the right circumstance. It has many applications, small and large. It's a very adaptable tool.

Michelle: What advice would you give to others who are considering using design thinking in their meetings?

Hope: Get really clear about your goal for each portion of your agenda, so that you can apply the right tool for the topic. You shouldn't use a tool just because it's fancy, new, and fun. It needs to meet your objectives and desired outcomes. Matching that up is really important and it comes with practice.