The past few years has seen the nonprofit sector embrace design and design thinking as valuable tools toward long-term change. But where there are many examples of organizations turning toward design studios to help polish their message or hone their systems, the reverse—designers turning toward social ventures—is not quite as common.
The global design firm Ideo might be the most well-known exception of that rule, with its focus on design projects that have real social impact—everything from self-driving cars to disaster preparedness. In 2011, Ideo launched its nonprofit arm Ideo.org to use its expertise in human-centered design in partnering with nonprofits, social enterprises, and charitable organizations, giving them the tools to succeed long-term. For Ideo.org, the main way designers can influence social change is by establishing strong relationships with community partners and giving them the skills to eventually carry on their work independently.
At an event on Friday hosted at the company's New York studio as part of Fast Company's Innovation Festival, Ideo.org program director Shauna Carey described how the organization shifted its thinking from a consultancy business model of taking on many projects at once to one that focused on establishing projects with deeper roots and longer-term partnerships.
"In many ways, our structure doesn’t look like a consulting firm anymore," she said. "We work on big projects that take long-term investment, and we want to work with people who are willing to make this a long-term thing with us."
Working on projects with community partners allows the designers at Ideo.org to develop solutions tailored toward a particular community. "I think we can all agree that there are some really great one-size-fits-all solutions, like everyone needs a polio vaccine," Ben Chase, managing director of Ideo.org's New York studio, said at the event. "When you get into some of the nuances of these challenges, it can be really disempowering and ineffective to export your own idea of what a challenge is onto an affected community, instead of really investing yourself in that community and empowering them to become the facilitators of change."
One way of avoiding the one-size-fits-all solution is by working with organizations that are already doing great work in their particular region, and giving them the guidance and resources to scale it up. Carey lead her team to do this with the We Love Reading campaign that trains volunteers to read to children in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. When the Jordan-based nonprofit Taghyeer applied to Ideo,org's Amplify program, it had already been training volunteer readers in other areas of the country for three or four years.
To support their efforts, Carey's team helped develop printed materials and video instructions for training volunteers so the program could be deployed locally through NGOs around the world. They also created a visual identity for the campaign to create a sense of unity. Lastly, they developed a range of SMS-based tools that collects data from the program so that volunteers can see how many children their efforts are affecting and where else the campaign has reached.
In other projects that Ideo.org takes on, its designers go into a community with a mission to build a social enterprise from the ground up. Such was the case with Asili, a business launched with the American Refugee Committee (ARC) that offers clean water, agricultural services, and a health clinic to communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"The approach that we took to design this business was [thinking about] what do people want and what do people need and convening a group of Congolese that could, with the support of the ARC, design that business," says Chase. After three years, Asili is now economically viable, and the local Asili team located in the city of Bukavu has built its own research capabilities and has been prototyping new initiatives on its own. Ideo.org is no longer the one facilitating change, Chase pointed out, it now works as an advisor and offers support where needed.
"One of the most interesting parts of this project was building the capacity of the Asili team to do what we do," Chase said. "That is a really important part of our theory of change."