How nonprofits can use design thinking to increase donor and client engagement

How nonprofits can use design thinking to increase donor and client engagement

Employing the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality might work for the short-term, but won’t exactly lead to substantial growth or innovation in the long-term.

Bucking the status quo to break away from the typical methods of raising money, how staff and volunteers are managed, and how time is spent can produce meaningful results.

One way to do this? Take a page out of the tech industry book and use design thinking.

Forbes defines design thinking as a:

collaborative, solutions-based strategy for solving problems. Organizations that use design thinking define a problem, develop various ways to address the problem, then test those solutions to find the answers they need. They work through this process in a collaborative environment. At the very core of design thinking is the goal of getting an organization to become actionable and improve its sustainability.

Design thinking is user-first, or, in the case of nonprofits, constituent-first thinking.

With design thinking, you look beyond the problem or issue itself, and try to answer why that problem or issue is occurring. Then, you can evaluate your ability to solve said problem.

TechImpact suggests taking a few steps to get through this evaluation: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, repeat.

First, empathize. You can’t solve a problem that you don’t understand. You need to clearly recognize the issue, and that requires a deep dive into what your constituents need. Don’t assume—really get to the bottom of their struggles and pain points.

Then, define. What is the issue you’ve assessed? This can include both the parts and parcels and the whole problem.

Once you have spoken with your constituents and defined the problem, TechImpact recommends ideation. What are the possible solutions? This means any and all ideas—start big and whittle down your options.

Your idea will—ideally—lead to a prototype, putting your ideas through a trial run without too much investment of capital and manpower. TechImpact suggests trying out pilot programs or focus groups to get honest feedback.

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Test after the prototype to see if your idea has legs. If it doesn’t, it’s time to try something new.

Then, repeat. And then repeat, again. Not only will your ideas evolve, but the needs of your constituency will.

According to the Harvard Business Review, going through this process can be the difference in nonprofits—especially those with annual revenues of less than $2 million—finding success or turning off the lights.

Consider the case of Hot Bread Kitchen, a training program for low-income women who want to work in the food industry in New York City. Chasing a dream of many social entrepreneurs eager to get off the fundraising treadmill, founder Jessamyn Rodriguez initially believed the organization could become self-funded by earning income from sales of its bread. She tested a variety of approaches, from sales at an on-site café to impressive larger-scale arrangements, such as selling to JetBlue and Whole Foods. When those sales weren’t adequate, she realized she needed a hybrid model that would rely partly on earned income and partly on philanthropic sources. By being receptive to foundation support, Rodriguez not only achieved financial stability but also gained vital wisdom about developing her services.

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This innovative, holistic approach extends beyond the mission of the org, making its way to new and improved fundraising, staffing, and management techniques. It allows for increased engagement at all levels of the organization, from the staff to the board. It’s an all-hands-on-deck process that requires a pause and a step back to fully understand what to do next.


Ultimately, design thinking leads to collaborative, inclusive work requiring actionable ideas and a plan to best serve the organization’s clients. Implementing these ideas will help build a stronger connection with the people you serve and create more sustainable, long-term growth.

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Lindsey Thieken

Lindsey is a passionate community-builder and storyteller. When she's not writing, she's traveling, reading as much as possible, and practicing her left hook with her new obsession—boxing.

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