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The Role of Design and 'Design Thinking' in Philanthropy

December 05, 2012

(Kris Putnam-Walkerly, an award-winning philanthropy consultant, evaluator, and speaker, is the principal author of the popular Philanthropy411 blog, where this post originally appeared.)

At the turn of the twenty-first century, after decades of percolation in academia, the concept of "design thinking" began to appear in popular business literature and conversation. Although finding a clear, consistent explanation of design thinking is rather like asking bridesmaids to agree on the perfect shade of blue, Wikipedia gave it a shot:

Design Thinking refers to the methods and processes for investigating ill-defined problems, acquiring information, analyzing knowledge, and positing solutions in the design and planning fields. As a style of thinking, it is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context.

Ill-defined problems. Combining empathy, creativity, and rationality in developing a solution. Sounds perfect for philanthropy, doesn't it? It's no wonder, then, that as design thinking has become manifest in the business world, it's beginning to pique the interest of the funding community.

In a recent conversation with Kyle Reis, Manager for Strategy and Operations at the Ford Foundation, we pondered the question of how foundations might partner with design communities to help them learn how to more fundamentally and intentionally integrate design and design thinking into their work.

Change_by-designIt's already happening. One of the better-known examples is IDEO, a Bay Area design firm that is a recognized frontrunner in the design thinking movement. IDEO president and CEO Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt (who at the time led the company's Social Innovation group) published a seminal article, "Design Thinking for the Social Sector," in the Winter 2010 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review that helped pave the way for further reflection on the topic. In 2011, the company started its own philanthropic arm, IDEO.org, to help bring design thinking to social problems. (Wyatt is now co-lead and executive director of that effort.) The Chronicle of Philanthropy covered the launch with a great story about a collaboration to pilot a new, affordable system of in-home toilets for low-income urban dwellers in Ghana.

One element of the effort, OpenIDEO, uses an online platform to generate crowd-sourced solutions to social challenges. In that space, people from around the world can share their knowledge, ideas, and insights to help solve problems, whether local or global. (There's a great video there about that Ghana toilet project, too.)

Foundations, too, are focusing on ways in which design might inform and advance their work. The Ford Foundation, for instance, hosted a Change By Design meeting earlier this year that brought together leaders in design, social innovation, art, and journalism to think creatively about the use of digital storytelling and cutting-edge tools to visualize, map, and create narratives that inspire action. (Click here for a nice list of resources highlighted at the meeting.)

The idea of openly sharing creativity and knowledge for the common good is intriguing. The business world doesn't own the concept of design thinking any more than the philanthropic world owns the concept of empathy, so it makes sense that the two (along with government, entrepreneurs, engaged citizens, scientists, educators, and designers) should combine forces and resources to address our most pressing social problems.

But while there have been plenty of articles, op-eds, and posts informed by the corporate and academic perspectives about the social benefits of design thinking, things are still relatively quiet on the philanthropic side. Fortunately, that is changing. In my next post, I'll talk about some of the conversations already taking place and efforts under way -- including those launched by the Public Interest Design Institute and the School for Visual Arts' Design for Social Innovation program -- to more systematically weave design and social change together.

Progress comes by listening to a variety of perspectives. So, in the true spirit of design thinking, let's add the voice of philanthropy to the design conversation and, in the process, bring the benefits of design thinking to our philanthropic work.

Have you had experience with design or design thinking in your work? If so, please share it in the comments section below.

-- Kris Putnam-Walkerly

P.S. For a quick way to increase your understanding of design thinking and what it can do, check out this trailer for a documentary about design thinking that was released earlier this year. Also be sure to visit the Institute of Design at Stanford's Web site and watch the three-minute video below about a design thinking boot camp run by the school.

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