Rethinking Program Design


Programs can be costly. It’s not just running the program, but the time pulling together the resources, building the right partnerships and searching for funding. Sometimes the results are exciting and you meet or exceed your organizations goals.  But what happens after you’ve spent all this time setting up a program and it does not succeed? Do you revise? Does your organization loose future funding?

During my product design experience, there was a term for the very last moment one had to influence an object – cutting steel. It meant you were ready to tell a machine to carve out the metal mold that molten plastic would be injected into to create your product. These molds were one of the most expensive parts of the project and leaders would do anything they could to make the product the best it could be before this point.

This is where design process was built out of. It is a series of exercises that all but assure you have listened to people you are trying to reach, understood the challenge at hand, and explored every solution. All as fast as possible. As designers, we listen and empathize with consumers by searching not for answers to what is initially though of as the problem, but instead getting to the heart problem itself. In the nonprofit world, this can be a difference of having a goal of getting 50 community members jobs and asking “How do we get this community jobs?” to getting feedback and realizing we should be asking “How can we support transportation in this community to help them retain jobs?”. This shift starts to define the solutions that will be explored and saves time and resources by getting to the real challenge that will help you meet your goals.

Another aspect of design thinking is to explore, get feedback and refine. While it sounds expensive, designers have learned ways to do this quickly and efficiently. In the product world, this can mean making a prototype quickly out of clay and getting it in a user’s hands. In the nonprofit world, this can be as simple as creating sketched storyboards of service options and sharing them with those served, donors or other stakeholders. Incorporating their feedback can provide quick value to refining or scraping a program before getting too far.

Prototyping can even be a part of the program. One story I love to tell is of IMAN’s (Inner City Muslim Action Network) Corner Store Campaign In looking to find ways Muslim Americans can better impact communities, they discovered the prevalence of Muslim owned corners stores in food desert areas of Southern Chicago. By discovering an unmet need, accessible fresh produce, IMAN was able to come up with a simple idea, convince store owners to sell fresh produce. Rather than create a large program, they started incrementally with a prototype convincing owners to start with a small basket of fruits placed on the counter. As success was made at each store, they gradually invested in coolers and larger delivery systems to offer a larger selection. This incremental process allowed them to test locations, partners, and systems; creating an end result that met their goals.

While there is much about the for-profit world that we should not apply to nonprofits, we can learn a lot from both sector’s need for efficiency and engagement in creating products and services. The design thinking process has been proven to help solve complex problems in both with for-profits and more recently with nonprofits. As these two worlds start to share their processes, and even co-mingle, it is an exciting time to help discover the best ways to make an impact.