It’s All in the Design

“Human-centered design sits at the intersection of empathy and creativity.” –

If you’ve been around me for any length of time, you know that I’m an over-consumer of all things design—shelter magazines, lifestyle blogs, vintage rug Instagram accounts, antique stores, smart logos and layouts, graphic design, interior design, web design, landscape design—I don’t discriminate. I love it all. I love the way it looks, but more importantly I love the way beautiful design makes me feel.

So it’s probably no surprise that the process of design thinking appeals to me, and is my preferred approach to fundraising, my non-profit work, and my everyday life.

I believe utilizing a design thinking approach can help you unearth innovative fundraising solutions, design better donor experiences, and build stronger partnerships. It can help you identify and solve problems, and discover new opportunities. It’s a way to tap into and unleash the creativity within yourself and your team. It’s inspiring, empowering, and it works. Design thinking isn’t about making something look “beautiful”, it’s about creating change—creating something that matters.

There is an incredible amount of information out there about design thinking (check out David Kelley, who founded IDEO and led the creation of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, known as the “”). Design thinking has been applied in the context of business, everyday life, and even social change, but there is minimal information about utilizing it to design better fundraising experiences.

I believe that if we can use this approach to design solutions to complex problems like poverty, we can certainly apply this approach to design creative solutions for more meaningful donor experiences and better fundraising results.

There are five steps to design thinking: empathy, design, ideate, prototype, and test. Unlike the traditional approach to problem solving that most of us are used to, the design thinking approach does not start with a solution in mind. First and foremost, it’s about getting to know the people you are designing for. It’s about making space for collaboration and creativity to flourish, and creating a pathway for transformational change to begin.

Step 1: Empathy

At the center of the design thinking approach, and the very first step in the design thinking process, is something that is second-nature to most nonprofit professionals: empathy. In fact, the vast majority of us—regardless our day job—empathize on a daily basis and are compelled to act accordingly. For fundraisers, it’s an essential part of our job and helps nurture functional, authentic, trusting relationships that can create purposeful and meaningful change.

This first step is one of my favorites because it is an important reminder to pause, be present, and listen. Truly, it’s just good life advice and it happens to work just as well for fundraising. This step is all about connecting with others. It’s about paying great attention to the emotional journey of your audience, not just where you believe or think they should end up.

Next time you have a fundraising challenge, start with a listening tour of your current constituents, your clients, your staff or your prospective donors before you determine what your solution should be. Somewhere in the process of listening, I promise, a magical thing happens—you start understanding.

Listening tours can be accomplished on the phone, through a survey, or—best of all—in person. More important than where you ask is that you ask. Ask a lot of questions, ask open-ended questions, ask for more details, ask about conditions, ask for feelings, ask to understand. And then listen with all of your senses. Take note of not just what you are hearing, but what your other senses are telling you, too.

Step 2: Define the “Design” Challenge

The second step in the design thinking approach is one of the most important. It’s about taking what you experienced from listening fully, and synthesizing it into common themes. This step is all about bringing clarity and focus to the design space.

Too often in fundraising, we jump to solutions: “We need multiple events throughout the year at different price points in order to engage more people” or “We need a smaller printed program guide, so parents will be more likely to pick up the guide, take it home, and sign up their kids for camp.”

However, when we start by listening to our audience and then move on to defining the challenge we might find the real design question is: “How can we design an experience within our current event at a lower price point to attract a younger demographic?” or “How can we design an interactive experience at community events to engage the children of prospective parents?”

When framing your design challenge, remember: it should provide focus, capture the hearts and minds of those individuals you listened to in step 1, and inspire and motivate your team in the search for solutions.

Step 3: Ideate

The third step in the design thinking approach is the step that self-identifying creative types typically love the most. It’s important to remember, though, that everyone brings value to the table. Create space for differing perspectives, opinions, and imaginations, and you’ll generate the broadest range of ideas—which is exactly what you want in this phase. To do this, the facilitator—be it you or someone else—has to foster safe space, where introvert and extrovert alike feel comfortable bringing their real, authentic selves to the brainstorm.

Because a brainstorm is the perfect space to leverage the synergy of the group to reach new ideas by building on others, the ideate phase is the perfect space for “Yes, and . . .” statements. For example, someone throws out the wild idea to have donors be active participants in your building’s demolition as part of your capital campaign. Building on that you might say, “Yes, and let’s ask 3M to donate hard hats and other protective gear to help create a media-worthy ‘smash event’.”

The ideate process can be great team building and lots of fun, if done correctly, and can be truly inspirational and empowering. Don’t be afraid to add constraints, surround yourself with inspiring related materials, and embrace misunderstanding. Here are some of the best tips I’ve seen on designing a fruitful, ideation session.

Step 4: Prototype

Now it’s time to choose a few of those ideas from your incredible brainstorm session to prototype. Prototyping is actually about doing more research. It’s about creating something that the “user” can interact with. From my experience, I’d suggest choosing a few of your ideas from the previous step to prototype (perhaps: “the rationale choice”; “the most challenging”; and “the most fun”).

Don’t let this part scare you—you don’t need to call in an engineer to build something. A prototype can be a mocked-up invitation, a story board, an example video on your cell phone, or a walk-through of a tour.

Take a few mock-up invitations to your young professionals board and ask for their feedback on design and price points. Have clients act as your tour group, and get their feedback on the language you use and the spaces you visit. Build a small replica of the new community garden you’re proposing and generate feedback from donors, funders, and users. What do they think? What could be improved? How does it measure up to their expectations? What’s missing? Does anything seem unnecessary or out of place? How does it make them feel when using the prototype? Do they feel like it was designed for them? How would they describe the product using their own words?

Don’t worry about getting it all right on your first go. The more you prototype and learn, the greater your positive impact on the final solution. It’s okay to be vulnerable and say, “I don’t know.” If you find yourself uttering those very words, go back to step 1, and listen again. Get more feedback, generate a new idea or two, and try again.

Once you think you have the right prototype, it’s time to move to the testing phase.

Step 5: Test

Remember: Every part of the design thinking approach is about learning, so testing is simply launching a product in order to learn more. It’s often about running a pilot—a pilot program, event (or addition to an event), mailing, website, partnership or campaign.

There is always the potential that a test can fail. That’s okay. However, there are plenty of things you can do to mitigate risks, to keep costs down, and to generate approval from the “powers that be” to give something new a try.

Below are some questions that Circular Design Guide suggests you consider before you test:

  • Who is responsible for running the pilot?
  • What resources need to be in place to run an effective pilot?
  • What are the risks that might arise and how will you manage them?
  • How will you get feedback to gauge success?
  • How will you evaluate the pilot?

Sometimes testing means going back to the drawing board—which is simply another opportunity to build empathy and learn more about your user. Other times, testing may reveal that you nailed it. You designed something that solved a problem—you created change. You created something that mattered. And that’s a pretty beautiful thing.

I’d love to hear if you’ve applied this approach to your fundraising. How did it work? How did it make you feel? What did you learn?

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