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3 Ways to Use Design Thinking to Increase Performance


By Kayla McClanahan

Designers in Classroom

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Kayla McClanahan is a guest contributor to the Classy Blog. 

When you hear the word design in the context of your organization, what comes to mind? Probably something along the lines of visual art—an annual report, invitations to a fundraising event, or website design. While these are all products of design, design isn’t just about creating visuals. In fact, that’s only just the beginning.

Design concepts can be used at all levels of a nonprofit to increase your impact, develop a new program to better serve your community, improve management styles, and more.

Design thinking, specifically, refers to a creative problem-solving framework that uses empathy and community expertise to find solutions to complex problems.

This process is similar to approaches known as design for social justice, human-centered design, social impact design—the list goes on. All of these are centered around the experiences of people. For a nonprofit, this is the program participant, the donor, or maybe the employee.

Think tank and consulting firm IDEO generated a list of mindsets that business leaders, tech startups, or other organizations can apply throughout the design thinking process. Below we dig into a few of these mindsets and how they can increase the impact of your work in the social sector.


This may seem straightforward, but empathy is absolutely foundational to any work that occurs at a nonprofit. Stanford d.school Editor-in-Residence Emi Kolawole posed that, “In order to get to new solutions, you have to get to know different people, different scenarios, different places.”

When you take the time to step outside of your normal day in an indirect support role to engage with actual program participants, you can gain a deeper understanding of their assets, needs, and lived experiences. Not only can these human interactions help spark an idea for the next campaign you work on, but it can help you better embody the mission of your organization.

If you’re in an administrative role, such as marketing, development, or backend program coordination, set aside time to periodically step out of your office space or do a site visit to interact with and serve program participants directly. Take it all in. Exchange names and listen to the stories people share about themselves.

Creative Confidence

Once you begin to practice empathy regularly at work, you’re likely to have ideas for more projects churning in your head. After all, you have a deeper understanding of who exactly it is that your organization serves and their assets, needs, and individual experiences.

Creative confidence is the belief that your role is, in fact, creative (yes—even the way you manage a team meeting) and that you have the ability to act on new ideas all the time. Make things, test out a new method before you’ve fully figured it out, and don’t be afraid to tell people up-front that you’re experimenting and learning together. They’ll be more patient than you would expect when you’re candid with them.


To iterate is to do something—and then do it again, and again. This is about exercising your creative confidence, your inherent ability to make the thing. Just get it out there, because it’s not going to be perfect the first time around regardless of how long you sit on it. Why? Because you need input from the people throughout the entire process. The sooner you share a product, process, or program with the world, the sooner you can begin to tweak and refine it based on user or simulated-user experience.

For example, let’s say you’re coordinating an event for the people your organization serves. It feels like you only have one shot to get the entire evening perfect, but you decided to bring in a new icebreaker activity and are unsure how it will go over. A few days before the event, you gather an unsuspecting group of coworkers to try out the activity with you.

Based on what you see unfold, you adjust a component of the activity that felt rocky. Then, the day before the event, you run through the activity on-site with a few participants, and tweak it once more. By the night of the event, you’ve already facilitated the activity twice and can foresee where there may be hiccups. You’re still not an expert, but you’re iterating.

Here’s a simple activity to practice iteration and brainstorming. The point is to practice throwing around lots of ideas and build off of your best ones.

  • Think of a problem that you haven’t been able to get to the bottom of. Write this problem at the top of a sheet of paper.
  • Now, list 10 “bad” solutions to this problem. This helps identify what you already know doesn’t work. Though, remember: there are no truly bad ideas. All ideas can be built up.
  • After you have listed at least 10 throwaway ideas, begin brainstorming more plausible solutions. These may be variations of your first 10, or they may take completely different shape. Break down your strongest solutions into even more specific ideas. Push yourself to come up with 50 ideas total.
  • Once you hit 50 different points, take stock of the ideas you’ve generated. Make the page messy. Draw arrows to connect solutions that may work in conjunction with one another. Highlight the ones that just might be crazy enough to work.
  • Share your favorites with your team and consider their suggestions.
  • Based on feedback, adjust and test out solutions. Repeat as necessary.

These are just three out of IDEO’s seven mindsets you can use to increase performance in the social sector. Empathy, creative confidence, and iteration show up in work and life all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not. Design thinking is not a linear process, and it takes many forms. Can you think of a moment when you used one of these mindsets without realizing it? What was the end result? Share in the comment section below.

Photo Credit: Doug Cody, Future Leaders in Action Training Retreat

Design Basics for Nonprofit Professionals

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