<<< Back to All Blog Posts Listing

Tools for Getting Real with Your Giving, Part 4: Design Thinking

Oct 13, 2022

Whose ideas are you committed to backing with your giving?  Even if you're pretty sure you already know what you want to focus your giving on, and how you want to do it, design thinking helps you develop new approaches by working creatively with others, especially those who are closest to the problems you are seeking to solve.

In this post we'll look at design thinking as another key tool for donors who are looking to get real when it comes to their giving.  Design thinking is a great complement to systems thinking and critical thinking which we looked at in earlier posts in this series on tools for taking the quality of your thinking as a donor to the next level.   Design thinking  requires that you get beyond the limitations of your own vantage point. This can be particularly important for all of us who typically operate in the mode of “rational experts.” If you are pretty sure everything would work out great in your giving if you could just convince the rest of the world to see things your way, that’s reason enough to consider design thinking!

The Five Stages of Design Thinking

IDEO and other cutting edge design firms have pioneered the concept of “user experience” (UX) and “human-centered design.” These ideas are rapidly moving beyond the Silicon Valley startup scene and into the mainstream. The Institute of Design at Stanford University, otherwise known as the “d.school” has generated much of the intellectual capital behind the design thinking approach as it is practiced at firms like IDEO.


There are five stages in the d.school’s model for design thinking.

  1.  Empathize: This involves working as closely as possible with those who are closest to the challenge or problem in question. This is about getting real by understanding their interests, needs, desires, and unique experience of the world as it actually plays out for them. This step also draws on your critical thinking skills. The more you can set aside your own preconceptions and assumptions about how the world works, the better able you will be to appreciate the experience of those who are most directly impacted by whatever challenge you are seeking to tackle. Even if you consider yourself to be a stakeholder who is very much among those directly impacted by the issue at hand, it is still valuable to engage others with a variety of perspectives to make sure you have the fullest possible picture of what’s “real.” This is where sayings about the “wisdom of the group” and “many minds are better than one” come into their own.  For example, this is exactly what the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation has done by sponsoring focus groups for local non-profit media organizations to learn more about what their readers and listeners actually want and need when it comes to coverage of local news.
  2.  Define: This involves synthesizing all the information and perspectives you have gathered from those closest to the problem. The goal is to define the issue in human-centered terms. This is a great stage in which to apply the root cause analysis tool. Generate a single sentence problem statement in which those closest to the issue play the starring role. For example, instead of defining the problem they are working to solve as “universal access to high quality pre-school” here’s how the Trust For Learning lays out the issue instead: “Our work is to make sure that every child has access to high-quality early learning that meets them where they are, prepares them for success in school, and takes them where they want to be in life.”  
  3.  Ideate: With a human-centered problem statement in hand, it’s time to get creative. Given our deeper understanding of what those with the greatest proximity to the problem are experiencing, it’s time to ask: How might we incorporate innovative approaches, features, and attributes into a new design that will make this user experience markedly better? Unusual brainstorming techniques can be helpful here. One example is the “Worst Possible Idea” game. Participants get their creative process flowing by trying to come up with ideas that they are sure would be a giant step backwards, then flip them around to look for unusual paths towards improvement.
  4.  Prototype: The idea here is to take promising ideas generated during the ideation stage and test them with end users as quickly as possible. This is how RevX, a project of Transcend Education works with students to test out potential solutions to learning design problems that the students themselves identify.  After students at one participating school in Edgecombe County North Carolina decided they wanted to focus on ideas that would make their playground more inclusive for students with mobility challenges they tested out the idea by working together to build a small raised garden bed in one area of the playground. “Failing fast” is a virtue here. It’s far better to get early information about what works and what doesn’t with the people whose needs we are ultimately seeking to satisfy. You want to avoid investing lots of time and resources on a dead end.  
  5.  Test: Now it’s time to test the most promising potential solutions in a much more rigorous fashion. Again, the needs and perspectives of those closest to the problem are paramount. You also want to use systems thinking and critical thinking skills to look for unintended consequences and feedback loops, as well as for blind spots that might be obscuring the vision. The goal is to develop a solution that has the greatest likelihood of actually delivering the results you intend out in the real world. 

It’s important to note that applying the five stages of design thinking is not typically a linear process. Even when we reach Stage Five and test a solution that appears to be successful, our work is never fully done because we know we are engaging in a dynamic systems process. The good news is that if your solution stops working or needs adjustment, you can simply return to the design thinking process and begin modifying it to produce better results. Often, it will make sense to be engaged on multiple steps simultaneously, toggling back and forth between them as you go. The five-step framework, however, is useful to make sure that however you go about it, you cover these steps as part of your process.

Stay connected with news and articles

Join us to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared, and you can unsubscribe at any time

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.