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Tuesday, August 27, 2013


ARTI FREEMAN Program Manager, Province-Wide Ontario Trillium Foundation

esign Thinking has been historically applied to coming up with innovative products that meet the needs of the customer. More recently, Design Thinking has been used as a tool for social innovation, addressing complex social problems such as improving delivery of Ontarios healthcare. In the philanthropic arena however, we maybe just at the cusp of experimenting with Design Thinking. Having interned with Architext Inc, a Design Thinking firm in Toronto, as well as helping conceive and launch the Ontario Trillium Foundation Future Fund Design Lab, I believe Design Thinking can be a useful tool for funders to increase their impact. Four ways Design Thinking can increase Funder Impact



Empathy is more than the capacity to understand someone elses perspective. It is the ability to think and feel like the end user of a product or service. Sometimes this requires accepting the opinions and beliefs of the user, even if we do not agree with them. What are our grantees needs, aspirations, and frustrations?

Some of the most innovative companies - like Apple and Nike depend on empathy. They become their target market.


Problem identification is one of the main reasons why plans fail. Often we embark on a solution to a problem we have already identified. Sometimes, we even survey our end users to see if the solution meets their needs. Seldom do we really strive to gain deep insight as to what the underlying cause of the problem truly is. Insights gained while empathizing with the end user can help focus the problem. For instance, why are some grantees feeling frustrated? Identifying the challenge or the problem should result in a point of view that captures the user, the users needs, and new insight gained. Keep asking why until you get to the root of the matter.

Einstein once noted he would spend 95% of his time identifying the problem and 5% on the solution.

There are as many ideas as there are stars in the sky. However, brainstorming needs to be framed by asking the right question, based on the users point of view. Use a few provoking how might we statements based on insights gained during the empathy stage and the problem identification stage. For instance, How might we make filling out a grant application a valuable exercise for grant applicants?, How might we help applicants generate new connections and weave themselves into networks through the application process? or How might we use the application process to help applicants develop their concepts further? This is the space to use our imagination and come up with several possible yet actionable solutions.

The quantity and diversity of ideas will help us coalesce around the best ideas we want to explore further. Move beyond the obvious. All possibilities should be considered, even the outrageous ones.

Dont launch experiment. The best solution comes after experimentation. Often we set ourselves on a solution after determining the problem and we put resources into what we think is the best solution. Once implemented, changes are hard to make because of our heavy investments of time and resources. Instead, experimentation allows us to design quick low-cost and high- impact prototypes that will enable us to analyze successes and failures. This analysis will help form the next iteration of an experiment. It will further our thinking and improve the potential solution. For instance, if a new granting program is determined as a solution, we may want to first create a model that will quickly allow us to convey the idea of what a new granting program looks like. What worked and didnt work for the end user? Incorporate changes and test the next iteration of the prototype.

Resourcing experimentation may seem like financing failure. But by learning from failure we can challenge our assumptions, solicit feedback from the end user, and produce better solutions.

Resources: The Centre for Effective Philanthropy recently posted a blog on how foundations can assess their readiness to take on Design Thinking. Another interesting blog explores the role of Design Thinking in philanthropy. Interested in exploring how to use Design Thinking in the no- for -profit / social sector? IDEOs Human Centred Design Toolkit is a good resource. Need tools to implement Design Thinking? Check out these methods from Standfords

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