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Prototyping communal dining with SFUSD. Photo by Nicolas Zurcher
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A dose of innovation in grant-making

It’s high time for human-centered design 

A dose of innovation in grant-making

It’s high time for human-centered design 


‘Human-Centered Design’ and ‘Design Thinking’ have gotten quite a bit of attention recently in the social sector.

Bill Clinton themed the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative “Designing for Impact”, with IDEO CEO Tim Brown keynoting. A number of months ago, Charlie Rose explored the topic on 60 Minutes. Just last November, Wired magazine asked Melinda Gates which innovation is changing the most lives in the developing world, and her answer was simple: “Human-Centered Design.”

While the methodology has become a mainstay in the for-profit sector (from titans like Procter & Gamble to entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley) and seems emergent in the social realm (check out ideo.org and HCDconnect.org),

Human-Centered Design is notably absent from grant-making and grant-making organizations.

This is especially puzzling to me, although my experience working in and on behalf of foundations leads me to some potential reasons why.

Norming Forces at Play

Years ago I worked at the media, entertainment and sports powerhouse Creative Artists Agency (CAA). Four of those years were spent in the CAA Foundation, where I had the fortune of learning from and contributing to a wide array of foundation work. I helped The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with media engagement strategies, re-imagined Delta Air Lines’ foundation, and routinely advised celebrities and athletes with their cause-based endeavors. The CAA Foundation is a private non-operating foundation, so we also oversaw a small number of grants. I also served on the inaugural board of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a non-profit organization.

At the time, I believed we designed some innovative programs and planning initiatives whether on behalf of CAA, our clients, or with IAVA. The work was rooted in a combination of quantitative and qualitative research — from segmentation studies to school visits and focus groups. We listened, learned, and doled out (and received) funds based on grounded hypotheses.

In hindsight, much of it — while well-intentioned and having a positive impact — was still driven by norming forces of the environments in which we were operating:

academic in nature, silo-ed operations, hidden assumptions, traditional management structures and grant-making procedures.

It wasn’t until joining IDEO that I realized the opportunity for human-centered design to enable truly innovative solutions through new approaches to grant-making.

From Planning Grants to Human-Centered Design Grants

Let’s take planning grants as one example.

While different for all, planning grants are traditionally offered to help non-profits and the public sector, well, plan for future activity and outcomes beyond day-to-day operations. They are intended to enable organizations to plan for how to execute against that future activity, from strategic initiatives to the most tactical of programs. Sometimes this includes a limited amount of research up front and expert consultation throughout.

And yet asking grantees to ‘plan’ for a future primarily based in constraints of an existing system — without an emphasis on new input or priority on aspirational futures — inhibits innovation, almost by definition (note: this applies to grant-makers as much as grantees).

Even the word ‘plan’ places disproportionate focus on ‘how do we execute’, de-prioritizing cursory re-examination of ‘why are we doing this’ or ‘what are we planning for’.

Human-Centered Design helps us better understand the latent and articulated needs of users, addressing the question of ‘why we are doing this’ in new ways. It then helps us imagine bespoke solutions to meet those needs through prototyping and tangibility. And it enables us to plan for and create momentum behind a future that we have already begun exploring.

What might a Human-Centered Design grant, generally speaking, even look like?

Here are five key principles to help guide:

1. Seek Inspirational Input

Human-Centered Design often starts with seeking new input to inform or even redefine the challenge we are solving for. Finding ways to reconnect with the people we’re designing for through primary research often forces us to reconsider long-held assumptions. Looking to analogous contexts beyond the field we are operating within, and other exemplars, can be helpful too (e.g., what can the administrators in education learn from quantified self devices and retail giants’ CRM strategies?). Giving grantees space and support to learn anew can help them see their challenges in a different light, reveal new opportunities, and foster renewed confidence in overall purpose.

2. Get Designing and Co-Create

Inspirational input can be excellent fodder for new ideas, and meaningful refinement of previous ones. So what does ‘designing’ look like? Sketches, video enactments, business model scenario building — designing can take many forms. It has the ability to unshackle us from constraints of current contexts, and de-risk the imagination of new futures. Most importantly, it enables us to have a different conversation with those we’re designing for: more than simple focus groups or feedback sessions, we can invite them into the design process to co-construct and iterate these ideas. If we are able to take them along for the journey, it can galvanize stakeholders to action and enable a sense of empowerment when it comes time to move ahead.

3. Get Tangible and Get Real

Words on a page nestled in a strategic plan are no substitute for trying something on for size first. Part of Human-Centered Design is getting real via prototyping. Role-playing new processes, quick experiments with new experiences for customers, and building rough mock-ups of products are great ways to learn how something could work in action. These provide additional forums for feedback from key stakeholders, allow for further iteration of the ideas, and give us runway to begin exploring scenarios for what it will really take to get there. When it turns tangible, it feels more “real”, and stakeholders feel a greater sense of accountability.

4. Build a Roadmap that Builds on Early Successes

This ‘accountability’ brings a unique momentum to the planning process. All the work up to this point will have actually laid groundwork for a plan, rooted in reality, with buy-in from key stakeholders. And prototyping enables us to have an understanding of where we can have the most success early on, so we are able to prioritize those areas as we plan. Go for the quick wins first — articulating what already may be in process — that scaffold up to a broader strategic plan.

5. Spread the Word

We have often seen that once one group within an organization uses Human-Centered Design successfully, others see the potential it can deliver — and want in on it. Opening up the work and the process to others internally, while it might feel vulnerable, can help expedite the adoption of Human-Centered Design more broadly. This has happened time and again with a number of for-profit companies like Kaiser Permanente and Intuit, to great success.

The Future is Here

Foundations, established and upstart, have already been experimenting with Human-Centered Design grants.

The Knight Foundation has been doing this well with The Knight Prototype Fund, which “helps media makers, technologists and tinkerers take ideas from concept to demo. With grants of [$35,000 or less], innovators are given six months to research, test core assumptions and iterate before building out an entire project…And if successful projects emerge, Knight Foundation can help them scale.”

Another great example: The Sara and Evan Williams Foundation’s support of the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) initiative to reform school food (admittedly, I was involved in phase one of this work with a team of IDEO designers). Instead of starting with an evaluative infrastructure question as SFUSD had initially recommended, we suggested a Human-Centered Design process to explore and prototype what a truly desirable student experience could be, the underlying business and operational models to enable that experience over time, and a creative yet grounded roadmap for how to get there. [Back in September, the San Francisco Board of Education, in an emotionally-charged display, threw their weight behind it.]

One More Tool in the Toolbox

Truth be told, the Human-Centered Design process can be daunting in its ambiguity and uncertainty in end result. It might also require entirely new guidelines not only for grant-making and success metrics, but for how foundations are fundamentally structured and operated.

Don’t be overwhelmed. Find optimistic, action-oriented grantees who you believe in. Start small, learn, and iterate your approach with them.

When you see the results, it just might transform the way you approach grant-making altogether.