Beyond Design Thinking for Social Impact

Social challenges are complex. People live within human, natural, and economic systems that are constantly in flux. Power dynamics within those systems shift and change, almost always in ways that are unfavorable to the most vulnerable. Social impact organizations seek to address injustice, alleviate suffering, provide opportunities and protect the vulnerable. Doing this in a sustainable and truly helpful manner can seem impossible.

Design Thinking (or Human-centered design) is one tool that can help, but it cannot stand alone. The greatest power in design thinking for social impact is its requirement to bring the beneficiary’s perspective into the design of services or products meant for them. Too often social impact organizations create solutions FOR rather than WITH their beneficiaries. At best, this approach creates solutions that could work better, at worst, solutions can be actively harmful.

Every person who has worked in the social impact sector can probably recall a solution, program, or service that didn’t quite make the impact they hoped. And most can tell stories of well intended solutions that caused more problems than they solved (here’s looking at you Tom’s Shoes, PlayPump, and Voluntourism). Design Thinking mitigates these unintended negative consequences by bringing empathy for beneficiaries to the table. This is a critical first step, but it is not enough.

Beyond empathy, social impact organizations must bring beneficiaries to the decision-making table. Move aside, listen better, be willing to pivot, and don’t stop there. Co-design of solutions with beneficiaries is the beginning, but that should lead directly to Co-implementation and Co-evaluation of solutions. Rethink how solutions can be implemented by not for beneficiaries. And how can evaluation efforts more deeply engage beneficiaries? Deeper, truer partnership between social impact organizations and beneficiaries throughout the lifecycle of a program will lead to more sustainable solutions. Breaking down power dynamics between so called “givers” and “receivers” will not only lead to better solutions, but to a more equitable society.

Check out the free and openly licensed Human-Centered Programming for Sustainable Impact: Overview for Practitioners to get started.

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