You may have heard of a new buzzword in the social impact sector lately: “Design Thinking”. But what exactly is Design Thinking, and how does it relate to your nonprofit’s mission?

At its core, Design Thinking is a process for creative problem solving. Many organizations are starting to use it as a way to tackle tough, often systemic problems, such as youth homelessness or food deserts. Design Thinking uses elements such as empathy (putting yourself in the shoes of the community you are trying to help) and constant iteration (going back and trying something new if your first attempt didn’t work) in order to arrive at innovative solutions to challenging problems.

Identifying a problem is relatively easy. For example, if you see people living on the streets displaced from their homes, and you might conclude that homelessness is a real issue in your community that needs to be addressed. But arriving at an innovative and effective solution can be very challenging. Implementing Design Thinking into your thought processes can help you to come to a more effective and efficient solution.

So what is Design Thinking? At a basic level Design Thinking is a problem-solving methodology that incorporates:

  • Starting with why. Before you jump into problem solving mode, take a step back. Think about “Why does this community need help in the first place?” Or, why is this issue not being addressed? Is someone else already attempting to solve this problem? If so, what are they doing that seems to work well? What doesn’t work well about that solution?” Before jumping in with a solution right away, it’s important to challenge your own assumptions about the problem by first empathizing with the community you are trying to help. By putting yourself in their shoes, you can better understand the underlying causes of the problem.a Often, what you originally assume to be the problem isn’t really the true problem at all.Let’s look at an example of that. Let’s say that your nonprofit provides after school mentoring programs to underserved youth. However, you are struggling to get students to attend the program. You hear some rumors floating around saying that students aren’t interested in the program, so you spend a lot of money and effort to hire the most well-liked tutors and supply the program with fun games and activities. But after a few weeks, students still aren’t signing up. What’s going on here?This time, you disregard your initial assumption about students not being interested, and actually go to talk to the students themselves. What you find out is pretty surprising- the students actually love the idea of the mentoring program. However, most of their parents are still at work when the program ends, and there are no buses running at that time, so they have no one to pick them up and no alternative way to get home. If you were to provide transportation after the program, or change the time so that their parent could pick them up after work, then they would be much more willing to attend.In this instance, your initial assumption about the cause of the problem was actually completely wrong, so no amount of fun games or activities was going to result in an effective solution. It’s only when you took the time to fully understand the problem that you were able to come to an effective solution.
  • Having a deep understanding of the community you are helping. It is great to want to jump in and immediately start making a change, but patience is key in pursuing an effective discovery process. Understanding the needs of the community are essential. Getting feedback from who is going to be effected about what they really need are important before implementing a plan. In the example above, you can see that it was very important to get feedback from real students, since they were the ones you were aiming to serve.
  • Having the ability to pivot. Be open to challenging your assumptions. Sometimes your ideas do not work out exactly as you envisioned, but Design Thinking provides you with the ability to take a step back so you can take two steps forward in a different direction. Don’t be afraid to go off course if you learn that a different path is better.

Implementing some of these changes into your thought processes could significantly impact the problems you are striving to solve. No one ever changed the world by thinking inside the box and about themselves! Next time you are faced with a problem, try approaching it through a human centered, Design Thinking mindset, because the outcome just might be more effective than if you hadn’t.