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Getting unstuck with Design Thinking

How do 54 of Georgia’s top nonprofit leaders come together to brainstorm ideas and develop workable solutions for real-world nonprofit challenges—in a single afternoon? With the Design Thinking process, as demonstrated in a recent  “Collective Solutions” workshop led by GCN in partnership with The Home Depot Foundation.

Open Hand Atlanta faces a design problem: while they have a corps of volunteers to handle food delivery to thousands of vulnerable clients on the weekends, securing enough volunteer drivers for weekdays is a struggle. Dress for Success Atlanta has a design problem as well: reliance on partner agencies for clients has left their programs, which support disadvantaged women with career development resources, critically underutilized.

Both were selected to present their cases at The Home Depot Foundation’s Building Community Network event on June 24, a “Collective Solutions” workshop led by GCN that brought together 54 nonprofit leaders at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens for a crash course in “design thinking” and an afternoon of collaborative problem-solving.

“I hope you’ve all come prepared to think out of the box,” said GCN President and CEO Karen Beavor in her opening presentation, “because we’re going to talk about a method to get ‘unstuck.’ It’s called Design Thinking.”

The highly collaborative, human-centered problem-solving method, developed by design consultancy IDEO (creators of the mouse) and later adapted by the Institute of Design at Stanford, is a process where cross-functional teams shine. “The magic happens when you bring together people who are nothing like you, with disparate viewpoints and ways of thinking,” said Beavor.

The Design Thinking process, as Beavor explains it, is driven by empathy for your end user, tapping into the human experience of the people for whom you’re designing. Often, that process begins by reframing the problem in people-centered terms. Open Hand’s challenge, reframed, becomes: How might we reach more people with flexible day schedules to volunteer as weekday drivers, and how can we make the experience more engaging? In the case of Dress for Success, the reframed problem isn’t partner referrals, but how Dress for Success can make it easier for clients to access their support. Every design problem, Beavor said, must be viewed from the end-user’s perspective, rather than our own: “Our job is to find their story.”

Splitting into two teams, facilitated by Beavor and GCN VP of Consulting Tim Johnson, participants launched into lively ideation sessions, making liberal use of whiteboards and post-it notes as they generated as many ideas as possible, then transitioned the top ideas into testable prototypes. An hour later, the groups reconvened to report on their developed concepts. Utilizing another design thinking principle, “Show, don’t tell,” team reports were shared through drawings and stories.

Open Hand and Dress for Success each left with $10,000 grants from The Home Depot Foundation and an array of potential solutions to move forward into testing and, if successful, refinement and implementation.

For Open Hand ED Matt Pieper, two ideas stood out that capitalize on the social aspect of volunteering, a key driver for the prime weekday volunteer prospects they identified (retirees, recent empty nesters, and Millennials). The first is creating a coffee house space at Open Hand headquarters for socializing before and after the volunteer shift. The second, which they plan to move forward for testing, is developing an online app that features a social space as well as a volunteer reward and recognition system.

Dress for Success board chair Pam Tipton also left with a number of promising concepts, including two ideas to get more use out of their wardrobe service. The first: mobilizing their service with a “clothes truck” making stops at partner sites, ideally coordinated with partner programs to provide a one-stop solution for clients. The second idea was modeled on the “Meals on Wheels” concept: delivering packages of wardrobe options directly to clients’ homes.

The two-hour experience offered everyone involved a taste of the Design Thinking process and its potential to yield breakthrough solutions for challenging issues. The recipe: bring together a diverse group to work in “radical collaboration,” define problems in human terms, encourage rampant ideation, and advance your most promising solutions through rapid prototyping and testing. And every time, built into the process, is a bonus bit of capacity-building: a new sense of collaboration and understanding among your team.


 Betsy Reid is communications director at GCN and editor-in-chief of NOW.

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