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Can design thinking power better solutions for community foundations? Knight thinks so.

by: Sally Duros |

Can design thinking turn traditional foundation think on its head? Four community-based philanthropies are working with the Knight Foundation to test whether a deep dive into community information needs can make their home towns better places to live.  

Shifting project focus so they can be more nimble, responsive and effective are the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and the Incourage Foundation. Each is a winner of the Knight Community Information Challenge and Knight is providing design training as a resource. The learning process includes a round of immersive weekends  for community foundation leaders and the services of an ongoing coach who provides feedback and helps troubleshoot.

Design thinking is used extensively by IDEO (pronounced “eye-dee-oh”) a global design firm that “takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow.”

How design thinking is different

Design thinking is vastly different from traditional “foundation think.” It shifts focus to search for the trigger point that can sustain social change within a community. That trigger point is the need that runs so deeply within individuals that it can drive momentum within the community and cause the project to continue on its own.

“We look at the traditional way,” says Bahia Ramos, Program Director/Community Foundations for the Knight Foundation. “Here's money to do a project. Thank you very much. In a year or two, I'll check back and ask you how it went. You'll tell me it went fine, and we'll say thank you and go our separate ways.”

But, Ramos continues, “Once we threw in a human-design-centered coach and tried to introduce this methodology to the group, the learning actually occurs in real time. … The amount of comfort with which you can turn back and say, "Oh, that was a valuable lesson. Let's add that on into the next level of design," is not a traditional way of thinking of carrying out a grant.”

She says so far the process is not only impacting the projects, but also influencing the decision-making within the institutions as they hone their solutions.

Foundations, even the warm and fuzzy local-based ones, are known for their 30,000 foot views. But design thinking asks foundation leaders to focus at ground level where people live, and listen very closely to individuals to better understand the very real needs of those who live in the places they serve.

You don't know the right questions

A precept of human-centered design is that you don't necessarily know the right questions to ask when you go out into the community.

This has been a long problem with media and journalists, says Andrew Haeg, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University. Haeg has found design thinking principles pivotal in developing his new software called GroundSource.

The journalistic tendency might be to write a story in your head that in a way pretends that you know everything, and then you go out and harvest quotes for that story, Haeg says. But design thinking is “about getting away from the idea of surveying, or even sourcing in the traditional sense, and much more about listening to a community.

It’s about listening to people – all different kinds of people. This becomes even more important during times of rapid change.

“In an environment where change is happening so rapidly, you need something to hold on to and that something, in the case of human-centered design, is a deep sense of people's underlying needs,” Haeg says.

The philosophy is that solutions, or people's wants, will change based on technology, whims and tastes, but their underlying needs will be consistent over time. If you can tap into those, you’ll have a much better sense of what their actual information needs are.

The first phase of design thinking is called “need finding” or “empathy.”

Instead of talking with a scientifically representative sample, you deep dive with a small group of people. The work of the conversation is to really understand their day-to-day behavior, their context, how they feel, what they do and how they think.

Go deep with a few

“The idea is that if you go deep with a few people, a few well-chosen people, you're going to get to the more universal needs that actually are shared by a lot of others,” says Haeg. You also look for extreme users, so you can understand what people at the statistical edges are experiencing.

“The idea is that people who are in extreme positions one way or the other are exhibiting needs more acutely than the average person,” Haeg says. “If you can talk to them they're going to help you understand problems that a lot of other people share or help you understand dynamics that are shared by a lot of other people.”

For example if you're going to redesign toothpaste you might think of listening to the ideas of someone who has no teeth and someone who's obsessed with brushing 50 times a day.

“You're going to better understand the meaning and the value of toothpaste and its qualities with those folks than you are with a person who brushes like I do, once or twice a day,” Haeg says.  “I'm just not as sensitive to package changes and formulation of the product, colors, (tastes) because I'll take ….whatever.”

“(Journalists) waste a lot of time and money and effort, building things that people don't need, and creating information that people don't need. Or maybe they do need it but we've created it in a form that doesn't mesh with their habits, their behaviors,” Haeg says.

Design thinking always starts with a problem statement. Generally it’s expressed in a question that starts with "How might we ..." If you’ve followed the Knight News Challenges, you‘re probably familiar with that question form.  

Framed that way the bottom line of design thinking for community foundations is the question, “How might we craft information solutions that meet the deepest needs of our community?”

Says Ramos, “We're used to building the thing and getting it done. X number of people were served, or X number of people showed up. It was a success. We engaged everybody. They're like, ‘Well, but what did you learn? What have they learned? Why did they show up? What do you understand about them that helped them to show up? What is everybody getting in the process?’"

What's the endgame?

With design thinking, the end game becomes a more nimble innovative mindset within community foundations themselves.

“For me, it would be getting this new approach, not just ingrained from a project perspective in community foundations, but even in their operational thinking," she says. "Also, I think this notion of iteration can't be discounted. We think about prototyping as it relates to products, but we should be able to experiment with our ideas and our approaches as well and leave some room to pivot and take those risks.”

She adds: “It's hard because people need to be supported and reinforced through that, but I find that when people are supported and those actions are reinforced, they have better outcomes and better relationships with the people in their communities and the people they're trying to serve.” 

“We know that we have a lot of empathy, so I'm confident that we can just lead on empathy and use that and our curiosity to help understand our communities and the people we connect with in a deeper way and have something different come out of that,” says Ramos.

Community foundation and media leaders wanting to learn more about design thinking and community media can read this post from the Knight Foundation blog and download the DesignKit from the Ideo.org website.

Sally Duros

Sally Duros is an independent journalist and digital communications strategist. You can connect with her on Google+ and on Twitter at SaDuros. She also
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