Designers and Nonprofits Spent a Weekend Working Together

By Anel Muller

“You know how there are those older couples that meet later in life and fall in love? Design and nonprofits feel like that. They both care deeply about people, and this weekend was like a big make-out session between the two.”

While Brandon Schauer almost always manages to incorporate an elderly make-out sesh into his metaphors, this one––expressed at the culminating event of’s first BarnRaise––really does sum up the natural partnership of design and nonprofits. Both are deeply invested in creating great human experiences, and each want to make a positive impact in their communities.’s mission is to transform communities through design, so we were thrilled to organize the first BarnRaise outside of Chicago. The platform––born from the Institute of Design (ID)––is a two-and-half-day maker conference where nonprofits and designers work together to tackle a challenge within nonprofit organizations.

With the help of ID, we brought together 50 designers from Capital One and San Francisco’s design community, 20 nonprofit employees, and 20 design and product managers. For an entire weekend, they all worked together using the design process to improve specific experiences at six local nonprofits. Nonprofit employees learned design skills and took away viable prototypes that can be implemented almost immediately after the event. Designers got an opportunity to work with other firms and design groups on interesting, meaningful challenges outside their day-to-day realms.

The Theme: “Transitioning Out”

To choose a meaningful challenge, we explored issues specific to San Francisco like homelessness, addiction, education, and affordable housing. In the end, we decided on “transitioning out”; a theme that seemed to be at the core of these issues. The theme hinges on change, so we focused this conference around creating experiences that support people in these crucial moments of change.

The Weekend

BarnRaise began with an opening reception and two keynote speakers to set the tone for the work ahead. The six design firm + nonprofit pairs connected with participants and each team chose a challenge:

Catabolic + WANDA: How might we create a smartphone app that helps participants connect with one another?

Capital ONE Design + Family House: How might we improve the transition experience into Family House for guests or staff?

Cooper + JUMA: How might we maintain continuity around a role in constant transition? How might we help departing Youth Development Coordinators (YDCs) pass on their knowledge as they transition out of their role for the benefit of new YDCs transitioning into their role?

DesignMap + La Cocina: How might we help La Cocina transition existing donors and attract new donors to develop sustaining members in a donor membership program?

FutureDraft + HomeBridge: How might we improve access to caregivers through the Homebridge website?

Sequence + GLIDE: How might we standardize and improve the Glide welcome/orientation experience?

The event culminated on September 11, 2016 at our 360 Café. Each team presented their work and set up tables to share in-depth information about how they created their solutions.

The Value for Nonprofits

Viable prototypes that are manageable and realistic.
It wouldn’t be helpful for designers to shoot the moon with a concept and then abandon nonprofits with the execution. One of the mandates of BarnRaise is to create viable prototypes that are rooted in reality; the reality of what the nonprofit is capable of implementing and the reality of what can be created in a day and a half.

Sequence + GLIDE produced color coded iconography and visual markers to improve way-finding and the general welcome experience at GLIDE. GLIDE had begun using the color coding on staff badges, and this solution will make it much easier to know who to talk to when coming to GLIDE for the first or 20th time.

Solutions are built for the software or resources nonprofits have access to already, so that they can be iterated on and updated by the nonprofit alone.

Capital ONE Design + Family House used software that Family House already had to create their solution–a combination of simple activities and feeling cards to help families transition into Family House–to make sure Family House staff would be able to edit and manipulate the passports on their own.

The Value for Designers

The work presented ran the gamut from app design and gamifying soft skills to way-finding and activity passports. I know many people went back to work on Monday exhausted but with a renewed passion for their craft, and I received email after email from designers about how hugely valuable it was to participate.

“The most exhausting and fulfilling work of my career.”
“This was a wonderful experience end-to-end and probably the biggest highlight of my year so far!”

The nonprofits echoed these sentiments:

“Your creativity, dedication and ability to empathize with our families really showed in the high quality of work that was produced.”
“I loved working with a team of creative and talented minds over the weekend and hope you know this idea will be pushed forward in the coming months.”

As the head of, seeing the quality of work combined with the sheer excitement and happiness shared by each individual made me feel like I was going to combust into glitter. This first BarnRaise was just such a wonderful, tangible manifestation of our mission to transform communities through design.

We will organize another BarnRaise in San Francisco next year, and potentially bring this platform to more cities outside of San Francisco as well. If you’re interested in planning or participating in next year’s BarnRaise, email me at

Thanks for reading.