Design Thinking for Innovation in Purpose-Driven Organizations


In recent years, the concept of “design” in business has taken on a greater role than how it’s classically been defined (i.e., visual layout, graphics, branding, etc.).  As organizations realize the importance of user feedback in developing both products and services, an entire methodology–referred to as design thinking–has evolved.  Mission-based organizations can benefit from using design thinking for innovation to visualize problems more clearly, focus on solutions more creatively, and chart a roadmap with more confidence. Let’s take a look at how you might consider adopting design thinking for your nonprofit. 

What is Design Thinking? 

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that creates innovative solutions that can be tested, measured, reshaped and repeated.  Brands adopt design thinking to understand their customers and reimagine solutions to problems that might not be readily apparent. However, any organization can conduct internal design thinking processes to improve their own collaboration, communication and service delivery efforts. 

As a problem-solving strategy, design thinking acts as a disrupter, challenging our assumptions and patterns of thinking to gain a broader understanding of constituents’ needs, wants and pain points. As a methodology for tackling complex or sometimes vague problems, design thinking allows us to begin a dialogue with our audience through prototype solutions, testing and iteration. 

Design Thinking for Innovation in Purpose-Driven Organizations

Nonprofit and mission-driven organizations can use design thinking to develop a comprehensive understanding of their constituents and and/or internal teams, leading to human-centered solutions to problems. Nonprofits might also use design thinking to address a specific challenge, reframe questions, or as part of their ongoing strategic planning. Outside facilitators can help implement design thinking, or an organization can begin the process on its own. 

The 5 Stages:

Stage 1: Empathize: What are our – or our constituents – needs? 

Develop a deep, empathetic understanding of your audience, the problem and how it affects them. (This is usually done through user research). 

Stage 2: Define: Identify and label those needs and challenges

Use your research to make observations and connections and clearly state your audience’s problems and needs. 

Stage 3: Ideate: Create new ideas

Dig deeper than the obvious to challenge assumptions to generate new ideas and solutions.

Stage 4: Prototype: Start creating and experimenting

Begin to create prototype solutions for each of the problems uncovered. 

Stage 5: Test: See how your solutions work

Learn how your prototype solutions work in the real world and collect feedback; iterate when necessary.

Note that the design thinking process isn’t necessarily intended to be followed sequentially. The phases may occur organically in a random fashion, or at the same time in parallel with one another.  

For example, In our redesign of the Pillar Care Continuum website, we often moved into stage 3 (creating new ideas) as we were discovering and defining audience needs (stages 1 and 2). Stages, moreover, can be repeated as often as necessary until a working solution has been achieved. 

Adopting a Design Thinking Mindset

The essence of design thinking as a problem-solving approach asks that we think differently, look closely, and reshape what we thought we knew. Design thinking improves team collaboration, allowing more people in your organization to contribute effectively to problem-solving and innovating ideas. And it allows for a deep, empathic understanding of your constituents, which in turn can lead to improved interactions with your organization.

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