How To Use Design Thinking For Nonprofits


Design thinking is a simple method that can help nonprofits gain efficiency when redesigning a process, taking your nonprofit through a digital transformation, or choosing new software. By testing, learning, and incorporating knowledge with an eye on the community’s needs, the community and its members are at the heart of the project. 

Here’s what we will go over in this article:


What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is solving difficult problems in a user-centric way. When you approach problem-solving from the member or donor’s perspective, you devise a solution that puts them first. Once a theory is devised, test the products or processes quickly and incorporate feedback with an eye on how to best serve your target population. 

There are a few steps to design thinking. The first is clearly defining the problem that you are trying to solve. You have to tailor the scope so it's neither too broad nor too narrow. 

The second step is to consider who is going to be involved in the project: who will create the design and who will be served. From there, you can craft your approach based on the point of view of who will be served. What are the benefits? 

When you better break down all the components using the above steps, you’ll have an opportunity to break down your costs and achieve a better time to value ratio.

The benefits in efficiency and accuracy will be seen from top to bottom in your organization after adopting design thinking. For example, when using a conventional, old-fashioned approach, if organizational problems like errors or double entries appear, the amount of time spent on administrative tasks increases exponentially. If this is happening, it's probably time to think about redesigning your processes and adopting new tools like better, more capable software.

Let’s break this down with an example: Perhaps you recently started an organization that aims to serve global nonprofits by linking them with American donors. One tenant of your mission is to ensure non-English speaking areas are represented equally. As you think through the registration process, use design thinking to put yourself in the position of the non-profits you hope to help. How will they register for your services if the form is only written in English? You may need to get creative and investigate software solutions that translate the forms. Once you design something that you think will work, get the input of your target population and incorporate their feedback into your design to ensure you are on point.

design-thinking-for-nonprofits-what-isThomas is tweaking the way he thinks to
implement Design Thinking at his organization.

When you are deciding exactly what software tool to use, design thinking helps you select new systems based on your needs and the needs of your community. It becomes an incremental approach rather than a revolution.

Using our example above, perhaps you found software that can translate your registration form into any language; however, you need to pay a separate licensing fee for every language you offer. You know that your first target area is West Africa. Select your language offerings based on the languages spoken in West Africa. After investigation, you decide to begin with French. Once funding is in place you will move on to Yoruba and then Arabic - adding languages in an order that is convenient for the largest number of users in your target population. 

Adopting the step-by-step approach, and similar to the agile project management method, you can make improvements gradually. Considering our example, work out the kinks with the French translation before moving on to other local languages. By using an iterative design thinking approach, you’ll be better able to deal with issues as they arise.

At the end of the day, you are designing processes, installing tools to better manage administrative tasks and to better serve your community. They are at the heart of what you do. When you take their needs into consideration along with the needs of all your members and donors you will be on track to accomplish your organizational mission.

Imagine you are a world-renowned climber who has volunteered to lead a group of differently-abled beginners up a mountain. If you blindly charge up at your preferred speed, people in your group will be left behind. Rather than going up and down the mountain multiple times to help those who are having difficulty, use design thinking upfront. Understanding everyone's requirements upfront allows you to develop an approach with the needs of all the climbers in mind. This allows you to navigate everyone to the top together.


4 Steps to Adopting Design Thinking In Your Nonprofit

Step #1: Empathize With Your Community

Remember that at the core of Design Thinking is humans themselves. It is human-centered design. Design thinking can help you fall more in love with your community than you were previously. 

When determining the needs and abilities of those in your organization and those you serve, nothing works as well as interviews or a survey. 

Those conducting and reviewing interviews need to be skilled at placing themselves in the "shoes" of those they meet with. What is their life like? What are their limitations and challenges? What are their desires and insights? For a nonprofit organization, you’ll want to conduct interviews with:

  • Donors

  • Volunteers

  • Administrators

  • Clients

  • Participants

  • Users

All of these parties have an interest in what you are doing so you need to develop a deep understanding of their needs. Listen to their story. This will help you craft the best approach.

For example: you’ve noticed that memberships are down year-over-year. Your goal is to turn this trend around. When it comes to the human-centered design thinking approach, you are going to want to start by having a facilitator interviewing several parties. 

One party would be former members who didn’t continue their memberships. What are their reasons? When you interview several former members you may notice trends such as a perception that there wasn’t enough value for the cost. Perhaps the meetings were too long or too infrequent. Perhaps they felt like their values didn’t align with yours. Take a non-judgemental approach and truly listen to what they say.

design-thinking-for-nonprofits-communicateDon't make your members shout at you like Corinne!
Listen to them thoroughly and communicate frequently.

Another party might be current members. Why did they decide to rejoin? Are they enthusiastic? Do they echo some of the same concerns of the former members? You might identify common themes that allow you to make changes that members will appreciate.

Of course, you’ll want to interview people within your organization to determine if they are spending too much time on administrative tasks, or feel that processes need to be changed to allow for better follow-up, less duplication, or other ideas they may have.

Pro Tip: Note that there are many survey platforms that are free to use. A few examples are SurveyMonkey, QuestionPro, and SoGoSurvey.

Step #2: Identify Problems

Once you have gathered the views and opinions of the relevant folks on a specific issue,

It’s time to analyze this qualitative data and clearly define the scope of the problem you are trying to solve.

For instance, if memberships are declining, you may jump to the conclusion that perhaps a lack of publicity is the problem. If the reason memberships are declining is different, you may be inefficiently spending time and monetary resources without truly getting to the heart of the issue

After doing your interviews and carefully spotting trends, you may reach a different conclusion. For example, maybe you’ve spotted that you didn’t have enough in-person meetings, an engaging website, or opportunities for members to get to know one another and they feel disconnected. Or perhaps you might find that the process of rejoining is too lengthy and complicated, and members are not completing it, but would still like to be members.

The important thing is to listen, then define what your problems are. Never assume you know what’s wrong until you get to know all your interested parties and what their needs are.

Step #3: Brainstorm Solutions

Brainstorming is one of the best ways to name a wide range of solutions. You name a solution, then another one, and so on. All of the solutions are collected before any of them are individually considered. This encourages out-of-the-box thinking, experimentation and novel approaches that you may never have thought of if you got bogged down in the first couple of ideas that came to mind. From here, you narrow the field.

During the brainstorming stage, call out as many ideas as you can, even if they may potentially seem outlandish. Even seemingly outlandish ideas might lead you to a realistic solution you never thought of. Don’t be afraid to challenge the solutions, but in an optimistic manner. You need to make sure they are relevant and realistic. 

Pro Tip: One approach to build off of ideas is to respond with "yes, and…" to ideas that don’t immediately resonate with you rather than to outright disagree. This allows you to change the direction without alienating the person who put forth the idea, which may keep them from participating further.

For example, you may be brainstorming with colleagues about topics for an upcoming webinar. Your organization supports the families of critically ill children who are in the hospital. When a co-worker offers up the topic of Halloween, your initial reaction might be to shut it down because these children cannot participate. However, you think about it from a "yes, and…" mindset and say "Halloween. Yes, and we can offer tips and tricks on how to make this the best Halloween ever for these kids and their siblings who won’t be able to trick or treat this year!" By thinking about the topic in a different way you built off of each other's ideas to come up with something really terrific. 

Some ideas or solutions that lend themselves to productive brainstorming scenarios are solutions that are:

  • Organization-based: changes to the structure, or values

  • Software-based: improving automation, gathering better data

  • Human-based: training leaders, conducting workshops, hiring a consultant

Many nonprofits often do not have an extensive budget, you’ll want to create a small business case. Focus on the reason you want to take on a particular project and what the impact on the organization will be. For example, what is the cost? How difficult will the integration be? How much of the problem does it solve? Is there an interesting upgrade with the solution retained?

design-thinking-for-nonprofits-Samantha-brainstormSalma is brainstorming the overall impact of her efforts.

Let’s go back to our example on membership, let's say you determined that people were dropping because they felt disconnected. After brainstorming ideas, narrow the list to some realistic solutions:

  • Periodically email a newsletter describing past and future events.

  • Call members personally who haven’t attended an event.

  • Send a token holiday gift that includes a calendar of upcoming events.

For all three of these different ways, it's determined that they won’t take too much staff time to implement, they fit within the budget and should yield great results. 

Step #4: Prototype and Test

Since the goal of design thinking is beneficial incremental change, not a top-to-bottom revolution, you’ll want to engage in prototyping the plan before full implementation. One of the techniques for this is to go back to the initial people interviewed, and have them go through the processes you’ve changed and gather their thoughts.

For example, if you are interviewing people that have left the organization, explain what changes you’ve made. See how they would feel about it, and if it might have prevented them from joining. Or, if you are planning a newsletter as your solution, send it to a small number of current members first, then gather feedback before doing the full distribution.

Pro Tip: Flexibility is key. Remember that feedback on your prototyping is a gift. Listen closely and non-judgmentally. Make them feel appreciated and valued, so they freely share what they are thinking. 


Design Thinking and Change Management

Fear of change is an innate human quality. You must anticipate it as you craft and implement solutions. Design thinking is the perfect way to approach this!

Change management goes hand in hand with design thinking. Remember that communication starts at the beginning of a project, not at the end. Take the time to properly involve your audience from the start of the project. Make sure that everyone impacted has the proper training, demonstration, resources, and support as you move along in the process. When you face reluctance or bottlenecks, the same human-centered thinking will allow you to quickly and efficiently solve these problems. The sooner you take the needs of all interested parties into account, the better the project will be shared and accepted by all.

Pro tip: To avoid being overwhelmed, remember that training and support should be available through the software provider or third party solution you are adopting. Make sure your timeline and expectations are clear for all these parties. Ask what conditions are required for everyone to adopt the new solution? Explore the forms that support could take such as:

  • Face-to-face training

  • Webinars

  • Help center or chat

  • Tutorial videos

  • Internal resource people

Change management does not depend solely on the service provider with whom
you will develop your digital project. It is essential to mobilize human resources
within your teams.


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