Design Thinking in Philanthropy

I just finished reading an excellent piece of journalism; an in depth look at IDEO founder David Kelley that appeared in last month’s issue of Wired Magazine Fast Company (hat tip @socialentrprnr). Earlier this month I wrote about IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown and the concept of T-Shaped People. I’ve been intrigued by IDEO for some time, but until reading the Wired piece I wasn’t quite sure why I thought a design firm held important lessons for philanthropy.

In addition to founding IDEO, Kelley also founded the Stanford From the article:

The way Kelley sees it, [the United States’] polyglot populace gives us an extraordinary advantage in generating truly creative ideas. That idea was one of the animating forces behind the — a place that would help analytical Stanford types become creative thinkers. The school would welcome students from business, law, education, medicine, engineering — the more diverse, the better.

“When David was making the case for the at Stanford,” says [David’s brother], “he went to [university president John] Hennessy and said, ‘Look, we’re good at “deep.” We have Nobel Laureates drilling down into esoteric topics. But what if there are problems that aren’t solved by deep, but broad? We should have a side bet in broad.’ “

This concept is the activating principal behind T-Shaped people. In the article Kelley explains to a group of d.School students that Ideo and the d.School is focused on “design thinking”, not “design”.

“You’re sitting here today because we moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers,” he continues. “What we, as design thinkers, have, is this creative confidence that, when given a difficult problem, we have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.”

…”They went meta on the notion of design,” says Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, referring to the shift from object design to focusing on organizational processes. “They concluded the same principles can be applied to the design of, say, emergency-room procedures as a shopping cart.”

And this is where we make the connection to philanthropy. If philanthropy is going to fund new, innovative ideas we must engage in design thinking. If our field is going to advance despite the absence of market forces requiring funders to make smart grants, we need design thinking. If the social benefit sector as a whole is going to produce high impact, systemic change, we need design thinking.

The article continues:

Design thinking represents a serious challenge to the status quo at more traditional companies, especially those where engineering or marketing may hold sway. Patrick Whitney, dean of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), who sends many of his graduates off to Ideo, says he sees this resistance all the time. “A lot of my students have MBAs and engineering degrees. They’re taught to identify the opportunity set, deal with whatever numbers you can find to give you certainty, then optimize.”

But some problems need to be restated before a big, new idea can be hatched. It often helps to take the problem and break it apart, before putting it back together in a whole new way — the synthesis or abstraction step. That’s where the creative leap often occurs and what Ideo’s process is designed to unearth.

I can’t think of an approach more finely tuned for philanthropy. So many problems that philanthropy seeks to fix are products of unsatisfactory, but stable equilibriums. Producing impact in many cases is not just about “optimizing” the current situation, it is about taking the problem, breaking it apart, and then putting it back together in a whole new way.


  1. Sean,

    Kind of scary how our research-paths keep overlapping! This is something I’ve been digging into lately. I’m especially interested in incorporating an understanding of the complexity sciences into the “design thinking + philanthropy” mix.

    Some recent finds to add to your research:

    @sinatraj (Ashoka’s Joseph Sinatra)

    Joe may have scooped you yesterday, but lots of previous thinking on this:


    2/22 and 2/24 posts on philanthropy and networks:

    Yet again, Lucy got a headstart on us all a full year ago:

    Acumen, as described in this 2007 piece from BusinessWeek:

    Googling “design thinking” and “philanthropy” unearths many more.

    Again, though, the key is where design thinkers go when they’re exploring new ways to approach philanthropy-as-design. IMHO we need to fold network theory, complexity theories, behavioral and cognitive theories — all that stuff — into the mix. Not as an alternative to other theories (i.e. philanthropy-as-linear-problem-solving) but as a complement, because the context of social/economic/political settings demands both.

    Christine Egger
    Social Actions

  2. Nathaniel says:

    Another great post Sean.

    This is the connection that has my girlfriend Emily so excited about the design world.

    One of the things I think is most valuable as a shared “design thinking” perspective is the focus on anthropology. IDEO doesn’t sit in the lab, they go to the places and people for whom they’re trying to build services and products and learn how they live their lives. They don’t problem solve first, they see how they can integrate with current behavior, even if the goal is behavior shift. The “Keep the Change” Bank of America program is a great example.

  3. Christine, thanks for the reading list! Those all look great.

    Great point Nathaniel. We can call it “results based philanthropy” or just “doing what seems to actually work instead of what we think should work”!

  4. Tronn Moller says:

    Hi Sean! I ran across the article in Fast Company also. It helped me out a lot. I am consultant & coach with community and faith based organizations in the US Gulf region that were impacted by the recent hurricanes. Partnering with them to transition from Recovery to Relief to Community Development. The transitons are moving slowly, but this article helped me think about new ways and approaches.
    So, if you hear about “Design Thinking in Disaster Recovery” or “Design Thinking in Community Development”. Its that guy Tronn from the Gulf region exploring. I’ll keep you posted.

  5. Thanks Tronn, keep us posted on your design thinking work!