How to help nonprofits design new services

An illustrated guide to design thinking at social impact organizations

This is the second part of a four-part article series about my experiences designing pro bono for a year with four nonprofits. In the first post I looked at why doing pro bono is enriching for designers and how it gave me the moral obligation to make more meaningful work.

In this article we’ll dive into how you can do pro bono service design work with nonprofits. I’ll share all the lessons I learned in the past year and bring them together in a blueprint that you can use as a starting point for your own work.

Blueprint for service design projects at nonprofits

Finding a good match

If you’ll work for free somewhere, it’d better be a good match. How do you evaluate different people and organizations? How do you make a fair judgment on whether an organization is going to be a good fit for you (and vice versa)?

My checklist of what I was looking for in organizations helped me weigh up the options.

Project principles listed on my website.

Unfortunately, I didn’t start out with that checklist at the beginning of the sabbatical. Instead, before the sabbatical began, I wrote a blog post announcing my intent to help nonprofits for free. That resonated well with people. Just a few days after publishing, I had received several proposals. There were also some, frankly, odd suggestions. A few people invited me to create their startup idea for them while they kept working their day job. Others asked me to help them with their for-profit organizations. I was not interested in these kind of proposals.

I had several prospective meetings with individuals and organizations. Many, however, didn’t pan out because they either didn’t match my expectations or there wasn’t a clear project on which to work.

In hindsight, I would have avoided these obsolete meetings by double-checking from the outset that we had similar expectations.

Setting the right expectations

It’s easy to be busy as a voluntary knowledge worker. Organizations will always find jobs for you, and these are usually the jobs they haven’t quite gotten to themselves. If you want to get something specific out of a project, it is therefore necessary to define beforehand what you will be working on. Have clear objectives.

It’s easy to get sucked into seemingly low-effort projects. They can quickly take over your sabbatical. Keep your eye on the ball. Set your sights on tougher projects in which you can learn and really help the organization.

I learned this lesson the hard way during my first one-month project at a local primary school. I spent so much time helping with IT infrastructure that it took a very long time to apply my skills to solving design problems. Read the case study.

Comparison of time spent working at the school.

For the other projects we defined clear design objectives beforehand, and we communicated these to the staff. This helped us to stay focused, and to create longer-term results with more impact.

Balancing short-term and long-term innovation

Which kinds of problems can you work on at nonprofits? How do you balance your own aspirations and the organization’s needs? In three of the four projects, it turned out to be necessary to solve both small and big problems.

It’s more fun to work on new and challenging projects.

It’s logical that you end up also helping with short-term issues. Organizations see that you can help them solve many problems and they want you to help them out. It can be hard to refrain yourself from solving these problems with an obvious solution.

You’re likely to find recurring problems. For example:

  • Inefficient administration tools: time tracking, customer relationship management
  • Old school internal communication tools: email, calendars, planning tools, knowledge base
  • Outdated external communication carriers: website, corporate identity
An Eisenhower prioritization matrix.

It’s a matter of finding a good balance.

It’s more satisfying to work on a challenging problem, and you might have a much bigger impact. On the other hand, you’ll want to give the team value as quickly as possible.

Delivering working solutions

What is your role as a designer? Is your sole purpose to help the organization discover and plan new solutions? Or do you also help build these solutions?

It depends on your skills and aspirations, as well as the organization’s resources. Can the organization continue with the project after you have left? Is there the budget or people to build the solutions?

During my one-month project at a care home, I made the mistake of proposing an impressive application on the very last day I was there. Nothing was built yet. We had spent three weeks designing carefully researched plans for an innovative solution, but we couldn’t actually deliver any solution to the care home in the time we’d allocated. Just a promise.

I spent the following months looking for the budget to build that solution, and I am still working on it. Read the case study.

Spoiler: we found budget and built a first version that got picked up by national TV on launch day.

At PIN, the integration hub, on the other hand, we worked on many short-term projects that helped the teams a lot. In just a few weeks we overhauled many of their tools, including:

  • Internal communication flow and tools (email and calendar systems, document management, timetracking, and an extensive intranet)
  • New branding and website

Next to that, we also built and tested a compact but working version of the main project: a website to welcome newcomers to Flanders. The team could use that after the project was over. Read the case study.

Comparison of project planning. The units are weeks.

There’s a clear case for delivering working solutions as quickly as possible. This way both the designer and the nonprofit can end the collaboration feeling satisfied.

Agile product development, delivering value as early as possible. Skateboard, Bike, Car concept by Andrew Wilkinson.

At PIN, for example, we wanted to improve the way that the team introduces newcomers to Flanders. Initially we set out to build a website with bells and whistles that the team could use during conversations with newcomers.

To test this grander scheme, we first created quick offline versions of our idea. We put the main content of the website on little cards that we immediately used during conversations. Within hours PIN had a first working solution.

Thematic conversation starter cards.

Later, we created the first version of the website, starting with the content of just one Flemish town.

Video introducing the topic cards and website.
It’s our role as designers to help teams uncover and build valuable solutions as quickly as possible. It isn’t about designing a genius plan.

On the contrary. It’s about learning what works step by step, creating increasingly valuable solutions.

Introducing design thinking

Many designers structure their work via the design thinking methodology. Step by step, this methodology helps teams formulate a strategy and build and test a solution. I found this approach isn’t yet widely adopted in social services organizations, even though it aligns with the values of these organizations and could considerably improve the way in which they work.

Design thinking is a popular problem-solving method for making things that people need. Teams have been using it for decades to unearth problems and create valuable solutions for those problems. It’s a hands-on method, meaning that you learn by making and seeing what works. In that respect, the term “design thinking” might have been better called “design doing.”

The visual below illustrates a typical design thinking project.

Design thinking 101 © Nielsen Norman group

Collaboration is key to design thinking. During the process anyone can join workshops to help define the problems and to come up with solutions. It’s the people that do the work that are the experts. Not just upper management or people with a design degree. On this basis, while nonprofits are less familiar with design thinking, it’s a process that often works really well in these organizations because they usually already have a culture of valuing the contributions of all team members. Everyone can get heard and co-create to make sure that the team makes useful improvements that will be supported afterwards.

The teams in the different nonprofits were very positive about this novel process.

Often, nonprofit organizations still have a planning and meeting culture. Projects need to be carefully planned and discussed ad nauseam. The design thinking process, on the other hand, can be short. Sometimes results can be achieved in just a week. The teams come to these fast results via structured collaborative workshops. There’s little talking and a lot of doing. It’s very refreshing for many people, and the nonprofit teams I worked with told me that they kept using these methods after I had left.

Example of a structured idea selection workshop, using the Service Design Toolkit.

Employees at nonprofit organizations also value the time spent on empathizing, a core tenet of design thinking. They enjoy creating solutions that truly work. It’s not about creating something cool or something that makes a financial profit. It’s about creating solutions that really help people. They appreciate it when a designer takes the time to get to know the organization and the people they are trying to help. With trust and shared values the team can look forward and work on what really matters.

Linear overview of the design thinking methodology called the Double Diamond design model.

This article about design thinking for nonprofits explains the different steps of the process in detail. My four sabbatical projects followed that process, yet I structured each project differently.

Some projects had a long immersion period. In others we quickly understood the problem and defined what to build, giving us more time to build and test solutions.

Understanding the problem space

Do you need to become a subject matter expert to be able to help teams create new solutions? For example, do you need to spend weeks teaching a primary school class to understand the problems that teachers face? It certainly helps, and it’s a lot of fun. There are more efficient ways though.

Comparison of the amount of time spent understanding the problem space in different projects.

My recommendation is to spend a few days shadowing employees. Join them in meetings. Help them out in their job. Get a feel for how they work and what’s important for them. Spending time together also builds up a lot of trust and goodwill that pays itself back in spades later.

A designer does not need to become an expert in order to help design solutions. Our role is to be a facilitator that helps domain experts formulate their ideas.

The design sprint approach by Google Ventures is particularly effective to quickly get a structured understanding of the challenges at hand. It’s a highly organized method to define a clear design plan.

The Google design sprint process.

The design sprint is an intensive five-day design process. After one packed day the team will already have a clear problem statement, and, after the third day, the team will already have chosen which solution to build.

Co-creating with the team

To quickly learn from an organization, the most efficient way is to set up highly structured and interactive workshops. At both the integration hub and job coaching organization, we used the design sprint methodology to quickly reframe the problem and decide on what to build. In just a few days we managed to get a shared goal and start building a solution.

Quick problem discovery and definition with the Google design sprint method.

In the video below you can see how we co-created solutions with the team at integration hub PIN.

Co-creating a solution with the PIN team.

The care home project didn’t go as smoothly as the project at PIN. We used the more verbose Service Design Toolkit and struggled to make it through the 16 steps of the process.

Overview of the Service Design Toolkit process, created by Namahn and Flander DC. You can download the posters for free.

In many organizations it’s difficult to free up time for employees to attend workshops. In the care home, for example, we needed to do the same workshops several times with different stakeholders. This really impeded progress. We had similar experiences in the school. It was hard to find moments when multiple teachers and management could come together for workshops.

Key elements to overcome this are to get management buy-in for the process and to plan the workshops well in advance. It’s the task of the designer to show the benefits of this quicker approach.

Making the change stick

When does a project stop? Does it stop after you’ve delivered the solution? Or does it only stop after the solution is actively used?

To me it’s the latter. Service design is organizational change design.

When we design new solutions, we need to test them with users, learn from their behavior over time, and adjust the solution accordingly.

For example, at the integration hub, we created the first version of a website during the first month. The team was very enthusiastic, yet it took them months to start using it. Now, after the second month together, the same is happening. We further improved the solution together, and it was received with enthusiasm. Yet it still isn’t used much.

Such projects seem to need a third phase of implementation and change management. Where the designer revisits the organization to evaluate usage of the solution. This also gives the designer and team time to evaluate possible barriers to implementation and scope to adjust the solution based on actual usage.

Bringing it all together

Every organization has different needs, and therefore there can be no one-size-fits-all solution for tackling service design projects. It is useful, however, to bring all the earlier lessons together in a blueprint that can be used as a starting point.

In volunteer design work you come to the table with your personal aspirations, while the nonprofit has practical business objectives and a busy schedule. Spend a few days to get to know the organization so you can both agree on what needs to be done.

Design thinking is a novel approach for most nonprofit teams. Convince senior management of its effectiveness via tried-and-trusted methods like the Google design sprint and the Double Diamond. Kick off the project by learning quickly from the domain experts via an intensive design sprint with co-creation workshops. This one-week sprint can lead to a tested prototype and a clear plan.

Nonprofits want to get the most out of your time and theirs. There’s usually no place for designing genius long-term plans. Instead, help teams build valuable solutions as quickly as possible. Learn what works step by step, creating increasingly valuable solutions that can be used immediately.

Building a solution is one thing. Having a team use it is another. Take into account a third phase of implementation and change management. Give the team time to use and evaluate the solution, and build in time to reevaluate and refine.

Blueprint for service design projects at nonprofits

What’s next?

This social sabbatical was a pivotal year in my design career. This experience reminded me that we design to improve the world. With our skills we can have a tremendous impact on organizations and the people they help. I urge anyone to also give it a try.

My next project? Prisma. Remember that at the end of the project in the care home I presented them with fancy plans of a digital service? We didn’t have enough time to build the actual solution. I’m building it now. 2018 is all about learning in care homes and how we can stimulate care home personnel to care even more about residents.



This is the second part of a four-part article series about my experiences designing pro bono for a year with four nonprofits. The next article in this series will be about structuring a complete year of volunteer work. The other posts are about why doing pro bono is enriching for designers and about how we could give more nonprofits the chance to get much needed help from skilled designers.