Adjustment by Design

Monday, April 18, 2016

At the opening session of the Minnesota Council on Foundation’s annual conference on October 28, 2015, MCF president Trista Harris introduced the conference theme of “Impact by Design.” She stressed that an approach of intention and beneficiary-centered design can positively impact philanthropists’ day-to-day work, as it has for several Minnesota foundations whose representatives were invited to share their experiences at the opening session.

Putting Innovation in the Driver’s Seat

Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation president Holly Sampson spoke of her foundation’s response to 2012’s devastating flood in the Duluth area; GHR Foundation’s Kate Seng addressed closing Minnesota’s racial achievement gap; Bush Foundation leadership development director Stephanie Andrews focused on bringing underrepresented voices to the table and connecting them with influencers and advocates; and General Mills Foundation president Kim Nelson told of leveraging employee skills and knowledge to make the nonprofits it supports more effective. In each case, an intentional approach – framed by looking at entrenched challenges with fresh eyes – was critical to the foundations’ success.

“We can all get jaded in this work, and it’s important to stop every once in awhile, look around and see what’s changing in the landscape,” said Harris. Andrews agreed: “We need to resist standardizing the work we do, which can end up minimizing impact.” Seng stressed the importance of putting innovation in the driver’s seat, while Carly Bad Heart Bull, a Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow at Bush Foundation, urged the audience to really listen to the communities they serve.

The audience was left with the powerful message that deep listening, an openness to new voices and approaches, and beneficiary-centered problem solving lead to a meaningful and lasting impact.

Take Time to See

This message was further reinforced in the carousel presentations, which illustrated how making small adjustments in grantmaking practices, with intention, can change outcomes. John Kobara of the California Community Foundation spoke eloquently of the importance of taking the time to see. “The ability to see gives us the ability to do,” said Kobara, pointing out that we only take in about 40 of the 11 million sensory inputs in any given room.

Kobara shared an anecdote about asking his 89-year-old mother, an accomplished painter, to teach him how to paint. She set up a few apples on a table and made him observe them closely for several hours before allowing him to paint them. “This triggered a revolution in me,” said Kobara. He realized that we are all in such a rush that it kills our ability to see.

Neuroscientific research shows that we tend to convert uncomfortable matters, especially those involving humans, into abstract thoughts. MRI scans reveal that when shown photos of homeless people, subjects’ brains light up in areas typically associated with inanimate objects, as opposed to the portions associated with human beings.

Why? “Because we can't invest the time, empathy and energy into thinking about the needy, so we create a mental shortcut,” said Kobara. “Nameless and faceless people can be tidily put aside as things in our cranial hard drive.”

An antidote to this tendency, Kobara suggests, is to check our vision, quiet our judgmental reflexes and slow down a bit. “Put down the paintbrush and see what is in front of us. See each other. And connect to our altruistic selves.”

Keep the Person at the Center

Taking the time to look at problems differently is also a crucial component of design thinking, which Nadia Roumani, director of the Philanthropy Lab at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civic Society, applies to the social sector to improve problem solving. Design thinking tackles a complex problem while keeping the targeted beneficiary – the person for whom you’re solving the problem – squarely in the center of the process the entire time.

“It hinges on having real face-to-face conversations with the people for whom you’re designing,” said Roumani, “and uses a quick and generative approach to identifying and testing solutions.”

Design thinking entails five main steps:

  1. Empathize: really understand the motivations and experiences of the targeted beneficiary
  2. Define: synthesize that information, make choices and reframe the problem
  3. Ideate: think outside the box and brainstorm solutions
  4. Prototype: build a quick, inexpensive version of a solution
  5. Test: try the prototype solution with the targeted beneficiary


From MRI to Matterhorn

To illustrate how design thinking can make measurable and qualitative differences in people’s lives, Roumani shared the story of Doug Dietz, innovation architect at GE Healthcare. He was proud of the technical improvements they had made in their MRI machines, but when he encountered a tearful child about to have a scan, he realized they hadn’t taken into account the experience of actually using the machine. He learned that 80 percent of kids between three and eight years of age had to be sedated before using the MRI machine.

Dietz interviewed some of the kids and their parents and learned that many kids felt sad that they were missing out on the adventures and experiences of their friends and siblings (like going to Disneyland) because they were sick. He wanted to capitalize on the kids’ amazing imagination to transform the radiology experience into a positive and memorable adventure, and this became his design objective.

He interviewed kids and teachers, went to amusement parks to do research, and then he transformed the machines into whimsical ride-like devices. Assistants were trained on how to frame the experience in terms of “embarking” and “disembarking.” The kids loved it so much, they started asking if they could come back the next day and do it again. The changes reduced sedation rates to less than eight percent.

Philanthropy: Ripe for Redesign

So what does this have to do with philanthropy? “Grantmaking is a series of experiences, many of which are ripe for redesign,” said Roumani. “We can make them better, not just for the grantees, but for ourselves. Philanthropy can be far more engaging and impactful if we think about it that way.”

Creative problem framing and problem solving both require highly focused choices regarding the targeted beneficiary and which of their needs you aim to address. Like Kobara’s example of studying the apples before painting them, design thinking entails taking the time to become aware of your angle on the issue at hand, and mindfully shifting it to allow for previously unseen possibilities.

Gladys Washington program director at the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation shared her organization’s experience with doing just that. The Babcock Foundation’s original mission was to support organizations in moving people and places out of poverty and achieving greater social and economic justice in the South, a region characterized by extreme social and economic inequality.

Staff and Board Must Reflect Community

In 1993, the foundation took a year-long break from grantmaking to determine how they could be more strategic and change their philanthropic practice to be more helpful to the region. They came back with a new mission of building just and caring communities in the South, but the board realized the foundation itself had to make some changes in order to better reflect the communities they wanted to serve. They invited staff of nonprofit organizations, Latino immigrants and African American individuals to serve on the board of the family foundation. The staff, which had been all white, also had to become more diverse.

In 2004, the foundation further refined its mission, (this time “more of an evolution than a revolution,” said Washington) and began seriously supporting work on the statewide policy level. They learned they could support communities most effectively by enabling myriad organizations serving those communities to work together more efficiently and collaboratively – to stop wasting energy competing against each other for meager funds, and instead working with each other to maximize what those funds could do. The foundation also committed itself to providing organizational development support and operating as a lending institution, loaning eight to ten million dollars each year to organizations and nonprofits.

Put Down the Paintbrush

The network strategy adopted by the Babcock Foundation required behavioral and conceptual changes throughout the staff and board, as well as a degree of transparency and focus on the grantees. While they may not have labeled their process “design thinking,” it’s nonetheless a vivid and inspirational example of the impact a philanthropic organization can make when it operates with intention and transparency, takes the time to “put down the paintbrush,” looks with fresh eyes and redefines the problems to be solved, and then mindfully designs beneficiary-centered solutions.

Just as it made the Babcock Foundation more effective in fulfilling its mission of building just and caring communities across the South, helped the Bush Foundation bring underrepresented voices to the table, and changed the experience of children undergoing stressful medical testing, beneficiary-centered design can be applied in all of our day-to-day work on small and large scales to make our philanthropic work more impactful, immediate and inclusive.

Part of the Spring 2016 Giving Forum