The Role of Design and “Design Thinking” in Philanthropy


At the turn of the current century, after decades of academic percolation, the concept of “design thinking” began to expand rapidly 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 offers this definition:

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.

And this is already happening.  One of the better-known examples of this is IDEO, a San Francisco Bay Area design firm that is a recognized frontrunner in the design thinking movement. IDEO President and CEO Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt, who then led the company’s Social Innovation group, published a flagship article, “Design Thinking for the Social Sector,” in the winter 2010 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review that has helped pave the way for further reflection on the topic.  In 2011, the company started its own philanthropic arm,, to help bring design thinking to social problems. (Wyatt is now its co-lead and executive director.) The Chronicle of Philanthropy covered this 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 this effort, OpenIDEO, focuses on leveraging crowd-wisdom by using an online platform to discuss solutions to social challenges. In this space, people from around the world can lend their knowledge, ideas and insights to help solve social problems, whether local or global. (There’s a great video there about that Ghana toilet project, too.)

And foundations themselves are focusing on ways in which design might inform and advance the work of foundations. The Ford Foundation, for instance, hosted a meeting earlier this year, Change By Design, to bring together leaders in design, social innovation, art and journalism to think creatively about digital storytelling and cutting-edge tools to visualize, map and create narratives that inspire action.  (Here are some resources highlighted at that meeting).

The idea of open sharing of creativity and knowledge for 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 should combine forces and resources (along with government, entrepreneurs, engaged citizens, scientists, educators, and designers) to solve social problems.

But while there are plenty of articles, information, opinions and posts from the corporate and academic perspectives about the social benefits of design thinking, it’s still relatively quiet on the philanthropic side.  But that is changing. In my next post, we’ll talk about some of the conversations already taking place and efforts that are now underway, such as Public Interest Design and the School for Visual Arts Design for Social Innovation MFA program, to more systematically weave design and social change together.

And in the true spirit of design thinking, advancement comes by listening to a variety of perspectives. So why not add the voice of philanthropy to design 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 a comment!

P.S. For a quick way to better your understanding about what design thinking is and what it might do, check out the trailer for Design and Thinking, a documentary on design thinking, that was released earlier this year. Also, visit the Institute of Design at Stanford’s website and watch their 3-minute video about a design thinking boot camp course for all disciplines.



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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2012

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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