How Design Thinking Impacts The Morton Arboretum

The goal of The Morton Arboretum is to encourage the planting and conservation of trees and other plants for a greener, healthier, and more beautiful world. Photo courtesy of The Morton Arboretum

The goal of The Morton Arboretum is to encourage the planting and conservation of trees and other plants for a greener, healthier, and more beautiful world. Photo courtesy of The Morton Arboretum

An interview with Carissa Dougherty, Head of Knowledge Management

teenyBIG recently wrapped up a design thinking project with The Morton Arboretum.  Given the conversations I’ve had recently about understanding the benefits of design thinking for nonprofits, I thought I would ask my client, Carissa Dougherty, herself why she values the process.

The standard design thinking process.

The standard design thinking process.

tB: What is your understanding of design thinking?

CD: I believe the heart of design thinking is empathy: understanding your audience (whether that’s constituents, donors, members, etc.) and figuring out what’s important to them, what motivates them, what frustrates them.  Once you understand those things, you’ll be able to better respond to their needs and create something really relevant to them. Beyond empathy, design thinking involves defining your challenge, brainstorming potential solutions, prototyping, testing, and iterating until you find a solution.

tB: Why do you think it is important for nonprofits to integrate design thinking?

CD: I think there are two reasons that stand out: Building capacity and building community.

First, building capacity: At nonprofits, we are often asked to do more with less so it is important to maximize our time and resources. The things we create, whether programs or services or experiences or products, need to have an impact.  Design thinking can help us get better at defining problems rather than starting with solutions. The process encourages taking small risks—learning from our failures as well as our successes—so we end up with a better solution in the end.  

Second, building community: Design thinking is an inclusive process that allows diverse voices to be heard.  It allows us to engage our audience in meaningful ways, listen to what they have to say, and make connections.  This is a much better approach than just assuming we know what they need!

tB: What do you say to those who feel that this process is too time-consuming?

CD: Being collaborative and talking to constituents can take more time, but it is time well-spent.  A lot of organizations are guilty of jumping to solutions first: We come up with a brilliant idea and say, “let’s do that” without considering whether it’s the right solution—or even the right problem—for our audience.  Employing empathy, taking small risks, learning from our failures, and co-creating solutions help us end up with something that’s more relevant in the long run… which is always a better use of our time.

tB: Describe what inspired you to pursue the project you collaborated on with teenyBIG.

CD: Part of our strategic plan has to do with catalyzing people to take action to plant and protect trees. “Catalysis” describes a state where someone has fundamentally changed something about their lives as part of their engagement with us; they’re now working with us toward our mission.  

We really wanted to explore what it looked like to be “catalyzed.” We knew these people existed—they were the ones volunteering thousands of hours, taking every class they could, changing their career path, making a difference in their communities. But we didn’t know that much about them. What inspired them to take action? How had the Arboretum impacted their lives? What did that experience look like over time? We had been making some assumptions, and we realized we had an opportunity to really understand what people’s journeys looked like over time… we just had to ask!  

This project followed the journeys of 15 of these “catalyzed” individuals through interviews with teenyBIG. The exciting part of the project was seeing patterns in the ways people had engaged with us. There were really interesting similarities among the people we interviewed and we learned so much from each interview. It helped us see what we were doing well and where we could improve. With help from teenyBIG, we were able to gather these stories, talk about what they meant for the way we work, and find ways to build and improve the way we engage with our audiences.

tB: How is it different from what has been done before?

CD: We do a lot of evaluation here, mostly in the form of program evaluations, surveys, and focus groups. While these are valuable tools, they are many times fairly focused and close-ended.  Instead of asking people what they thought about something specific that we’ve done, this project allowed them to talk about their experiences and what they were thinking, feeling, and doing along the way.  It was a shift in how we were asking people for information, in a way that took us out of the conversation by using an external consultant. There may be pressure for individuals to put on a good front for us, but with teenyBIG, they were able to talk honestly and openly about their experiences.

The project itself was interesting because we involved people who had come to us from so many different perspectives—some were scientists, some were donors, others were library volunteers or class takers. Internally, we don’t always connect such diverse types of engagement across departments.  The conversations we had during the planning process were helpful in thinking about how our work intersects and how we benefit by including diverse opinions. It was exciting to work through our assumptions together and discuss our hypotheses.  We weren’t necessarily having these conversations before.

tB: What advice do you have for other organizations looking to be more user-centered?


  1. Start small.  For many people at your organization, design thinking might be an unfamiliar way of working.  It might even run counter to the way you’ve done things in the past. Starting with small things and introducing concepts in different ways can build people’s familiarity and comfort level.  When you introduce ideas like empathy and co-creation, these ideas can help shift people’s mindset over time.

  2. Celebrate successes and failures.  Sometimes a successful design thinking process will mean failure. If you failed early and learned from it, that’s okay: You’ll most likely improve on your next iteration. Talk about how you learned something together and move on from there.

  3. Use it as an opportunity to be more participatory. Invite people within your organization to work together in an environment that has fewer boundaries, whether that’s vertically or horizontally. Treat this as an opportunity to learn not only from your constituents but from each other.

  4. Keep an open mind.  Try not to start with a solution already in mind. It might prevent you from seeing other opportunities.  If you’re working with a diverse group of stakeholders, make sure all of their voices are heard, even (and especially) if they challenge long-held assumptions.

Nonprofits are typically risk-averse.  As nonprofit employees, we feel strongly about our missions and the resources we have that the community has invested in, so failure is scary.  That’s human nature. We have to remember it’s worth taking calculated risks to get to better solutions, but we need to start small. Being more inclusive, focusing on how to connect with audiences, and focusing on relevance will help us all to get over that hurdle.