Design Thinking: A Powerful Tool for Your Nonprofit

In April, my colleague Betty Ray and I led a workshop titled, “From Empathy to Innovation: Design Thinking for Nonprofits” at the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference. We usually limit workshop participation to 25 people, but at NTC we ended up with nearly 80, and literally had to shut the doors! What is design thinking, and why did so many folks want to get in on the action?

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is human-centered process for innovation. Design thinking comprises a set of methods and strategies for interviewing and observing users, synthesizing insights, building prototypes, and testing and iterating on solutions. Design thinking can transform the way a nonprofit develops digital or analog products, experiences, and services by giving staff the analytical, creative, and intuitive techniques and tools to solve multifaceted problems.

In museums, where I have spent most of my career, the term design is usually used in the context of aesthetics, but design is also a process. Design thinking is a system for framing and solving problems and discovering new opportunities.

Design thinking does not require a large budget or outside consultants, and in a sector of shrinking resources combined with rising demands, design thinking is a tool that can lead to powerful results.

Design thinking is characterized by a “bias towards action.” Instead of talking and thinking, it prioritizes doing. The best way to understand design thinking is to experience it. There are free options for experiencing it online, from a virtual crash courseoffered by Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (also known as the “”) to MOOCs (massive open online courses) such as the one offered through Stanford Online. Various Meetups often host design thinking workshops. The Stanford and several design firms have developed free online toolkits that can also get you started, and scores of books have been written on the topic.

Below are some key principles and take-aways of design thinking, but the best way to integrate design thinking into your nonprofit is to get out there and do it.

The Basic Phases

Design thinking is structured around five phases: empathize; define; ideate; prototype; and test. The process I outline here is based on how design thinking is defined and taught at Stanford

Empathize: it’s about them, not us

Empathy is the cornerstone of human-centered design. Borrowing from ethnographic methods, the empathy phase involves interviews, observations, and immersion in the field. In the design thinking process, before you jump to solutions (“we need a mobile donation interface,” “we need a tablet app for our members’ publication,” etc.) you start with building empathy for the people for whom you are designing. You engage with and observe those people and understand their needs and what is important to them before you even talk about the end product or solution.

In the nonprofit world, where we are under-resourced, over-committed, and often beholden to funders or donors, this jump to solutions is difficult to avoid. But design thinking gives us the tools to pause, question our assumptions, and understand the needs of the users for whom we are designing before churning out solutions.

For example, through interviews we conducted with museum visitors at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, we learned that for many museum visitors, the museum is a place of profound spiritual contemplation. We had assumed that offering online experiences during an impending construction project and building closure would satisfy visitors, but we learned that for many visitors, the in-person experience with specific works of art was so deep that it could not be easily replicated online.

Define: what’s the problem, anyway?

Before jumping to solutions, design thinking asks you to re-frame the problem. The Define phase, which follows the Empathy phase, involves synthesizing findings in order to identify and articulate the problem. During this phase, team members process, map, discuss, categorize, reflect on, and make sense of the data accumulated in the field, and re-frame the challenge they are going to tackle.

Team members often get “stuck” at the Ideate phase, but design thinkers who put in the time to work through this synthesis process often find that this is when they make their greatest leaps of inspiration and innovation. For example, in a 2008 class at Stanford, students were challenged with developing a low-cost incubator for use in developing countries. They thought that the problem was to design a cheaper incubator to reduce neonatal deaths. But, after interviewing mothers in rural Nepal, they learned that many mothers have their babies at home and have no access to a hospital (and hence the expensive incubators). The students then reframed the problem. Instead of designing a cheaper incubator, they designed a low-cost “infant sleeping bag” that costs less than $200 and can be used by mothers in rural villages to keep their premature babies alive. The product, called the Embrace Infant Warmer, is a simple, portable infant sleeping bag heated with a wax-like substance that remains at body temperature for hours.

Ideate: “Yes, and”

The ideate phase is when teams begin to consider how to solve the problem they’ve defined. This is when you start generating solutions. The goal is quantity and diversity of ideas, not quality. Exploring options and generating a wide variety of ideas is essential to arriving at innovative solutions. The most common method for generating ideas in groups is brainstorming, and this is when teams break out the Post-its.

At the core of design thinking is an inherently optimistic attitude. Much like the core tenet of improvisation—that of saying “yes, and” to whatever your partner gives you and building upon his/her idea—design thinking encourages building on each other’s ideas and opening up possibilities. Instead of analyzing why ideas won’t work (“we don’t have web developers on staff” or “how will we convince members to download another mobile app?”), this phase is meant to be generative and expansive.

This open and optimistic mindset characterizes the entire design thinking process, but it’s especially important in the Ideate phase.

Design thinking workshop

Prototype and Test: failing when the stakes are low

The last phases of design thinking are Prototype and Test. Prototyping is making fast, low-fidelity representations of ideas, usually with the goal of communicating the ideas to users and getting feedback through testing sessions. This stands in contrast to the way many nonprofits usually introduce new programs or services: we develop fully functional “beta versions” or expensive “pilots” that take weeks or months to create and are then too far along in production for significant feedback. Investing too much in a prototype means that it is already too polished, and usually its creators too emotionally attached, to incorporate significant feedback.

In design thinking, strict time limits are set around the creation or prototypes, and they are usually made from arts and crafts supplies (think Post-its, popsicle sticks, and tape). These quick, scrappy prototypes make it easier for users to give feedback because they immediately understand they are not looking at final, perfected products, and make it easier for team members to accept feedback.

So how can I do this at home?

Start small and set time limits

To get started with the design thinking process, you can start small. The temptation to work on projects until they are “perfect,” with loose deadlines that morph into new deadlines, is not uncommon in many nonprofits. Setting time limits, even artificial ones, makes the process feel much more palatable. Instead of adding a big, new task to everyone’s already overbooked schedules, set aside small chunks of time. Even 45 minutes of empathy interviews with users can be incredibly useful.

Get away from your desk

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where I introduced design thinking, the power of doing empathy work with real museum visitors in the galleries had a major impact on the internal team. The mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live museum visitors was incredibly powerful. Team members often found themselves referencing visitors they had interviewed, and keeping these individuals in mind provided an invaluable gut check when it was time to make decisions.

Prototype before you invest

Before sinking time and precious resources into a new program (or even into an iteration of a current program), try making a low-resolution prototype. I’ve seen mobile apps prototyped with Post-its, touch-screen interfaces prototyped with poster boards, and new services prototypes with costumes and role playing.


Design thinking is inherently scalable and flexible, and any nonprofit—regardless of mission, size, or operating budget—can implement this human-centered process of innovation. The beauty of design thinking is that it offers a toolbox of mindsets, skills, and methodologies that can be adopted, adapted, and incorporated, depending on the project, team members, and institution.

Dana Mitroff Silvers
Web Strategy Consultant and Design Thinking Facilitator
Dana is a web strategy consultant with expertise in museums, nonprofits, and educational organizations. She is the former Head of Online Services at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she oversaw the design, development, and production of for 10+ years. Dana has worked on the development and production of content-rich, educational websites since the early days of HTML. Among the sites she has worked on are the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, UC Berkeley Interactive University project, and Computer Curriculum Corporation. Dana has presented at the annual conferences for Museums and the Web, Museum Computer Network, American Association of Museums, IMLS Web Wise, and the National Museum Publishing Seminar. Dana has taught and lectured at both the undergraduate and graduate-level for Bay Area institutions, including the University of San Francisco and JFK University.