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  • Writer's picturePam Stoik

Design Thinking: A Strategic Planning Tool for Not-for-Profit Organizations

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So Your Not for Profit Needs a Strategic Plan...

In a world where challenges are complex and resources limited, nonprofit organizations must navigate with precision and creativity--and that doesn't just mean great mission and vision statements: you need to parse out strategic priorities and develop an measurable action plan that will help your nonprofit achieve your goals. Design Thinking and human-centred design offer valuable tools to include so strategic planning team can use to go  well beyond  a SWOT analysis. Let's delve into the essence of Design Thinking, its value in nonprofit strategic planning, and  how elements of it can be used to create a well-crafted strategic plan that creates an inspiring vision for the ne

What is Design Thinking (DT)?

Design Thinking is a problem-solving methodology that provides a solution-based approach to tackling complex problems. It's human-centric, involving a deep understanding of the needs and motivations of people. At its core, Design Thinking involves five phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. This iterative process encourages organizations to remain agile, allowing for continuous refinement and improvement.

Why is DT Valuable in Nonprofit Strategic Planning?

Effective nonprofit strategic planning often involves addressing unique social issues with limited budgets and with many staff wearing LOTs of different hats! Design Thinking offers several advantages:

  • Positively framed: Challenges and opportunities are frame using the prompt: How might we...? How suggests solvability, might implies there is more than one answer and we suggests that ideas and solutions are collectively built. 

  • Human-centred: By focusing on the people they’re serving, organizations can uncover innovative solutions that are more likely to be embraced by their communities because they're steeped in empathy and understanding.

  • Adaptable: The iterative nature of Design Thinking means strategies can evolve in response to changing circumstances or feedback.

  • Collaborative: The tools and processes encourage cross-functional collaboration, breaking down silos within organizations and engaging a more diverse pool of stakeholders. A truly well-rounded engagement shouldn't just involve board members,it should also include internal and external stakeholders--from staff on the front lines, to key partners, to clients or members of the population you serve.

  • Focused and actionable: Effective strategic planning sometimes means making tough decisions about which goals to focus on and even more importantly, how you will land on milestones and key performance indicators or KPIs. Design thinking tools such as the impact/effort matrix (also used in Agile) can help your strategic planning team develop a clear path to hone in on the most impactful goals and objectives that align with your mission and are time-bound.

Not for Profit Strategic Planning Using Empathy

The first phase of Design Thinking, empathize, is crucial for not-for-profits to grasp the context of their organization and the people it serves. This involves engaging with stakeholders, including beneficiaries, donors, and community members, to gain insights into their experiences and needs. Tools such as interviews, surveys, and observation are employed to gather qualitative data, which helps in painting a comprehensive picture of the current landscape. Personally, I like one-on-one interviews if time and budget allows, as it provides a window into your organization and how people perceive the organization's current state, strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I tend to ask a mix of open-ended questions and then finish with a variation on something called Mad Tea, a kind of fill-in-the blanks Madlibs activity that asks people to quickly hone in on their thoughts around targeted subjects like success, failure and "wild" ideas. 

Creating a Strategic Vision

With a wealth of empathetic insights, organizations transition to the define phase, where they identify the core problems and opportunities to be addressed. This is an important moment in the strategic planning process, as it sets the direction for all the process ahead. We often use a Team Canvas at this stage to share:

  • Common goals

  • Values

  • Rules and activities

  • Needs and expectations

  • Weaknesses and risks

  • Strengths and assets

Challenges and opportunities are then voted on to prioritize and framed from the stakeholders’ perspectives using How might we....? questions, and help to ensure strategic objectives are aligned with the needs and aspirations of the people your organization is there to serve.

Ideation: Generating Strategic Options

The ideate phase is where creativity comes to the forefront. Diverse teams "together alone" brainstorm to generate a wide array of possible ideas. While the process often feels more quiet than typical brainstorms, the approach is more inclusive and ensures EVERYONE's ideas are seen and heard. We like to say this style of brainstorm is the "introvert's dream" but extroverts have also sung it's praises! This phase benefits from the inclusion of varied perspectives, as it leads to more innovative and comprehensive strategic options and provides a chance for people to build on one another's ideas. Techniques like mind-mapping, sketching, and role-playing can also be used in certain circumstances to facilitate this creative process.

Prototyping Strategic Initiatives

Since the final product we're aiming for is a strategic plan, the prototype in this situation is usual the rough draft of the collective work that has been done to date, or a distilled version of all the work you've collected with stakeholders over weeks and months. It usually outlines the 3 or 4 pillars you've landed on along with the key priorities that have been defined under each pillar. It's important that stakeholders who've been involved in the process up until this point have a chance to see this rough draft (even if it's not pretty yet) to comment, ask questions and flag any omissions that are important to the term of the strategic plan.

Testing and Refining the Strategy

Finally, the "testing" phase involves drilling into the details of the plan, setting goals and identifying important elements of each goal including: barriers, resources, metrics (KPIs), actions and milestones. While you may have key teams work on this level of detail, collecting feedback from stakeholders on metrics and milestones can help to keep your team "honest" and discussions can lead to refinements and iterations of the strategic plan that might otherwise go overlooked. This phase ensures that the strategies are robust, practical, and capable of achieving the desired impact.

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Fostering Participation, Equity, and Inclusion

Throughout the strategic planning process, Design Thinking inherently promotes participation, equity, and inclusion:

  • Participation: By actively involving stakeholders in the strategic planning process at every phase, from empathize to test, the process becomes participatory, harnessing collective intelligence and ensuring that the strategies are grounded in real-world needs.

  • Equity: The iterative nature of Design Thinking ensures that strategies are continually refined to address any inequities, and oversights, making sure that the solutions are fair and just for all stakeholders. Together-alone brainstorming and anonymous voting on priorities and ideas, also helps to create a more equitable environment and reduces the tendency to defer to those deemed more powerful (either because of title or by dominating and influencing the discussion).

  • Inclusion: The inclusive approach of Design Thinking ensures that the voices of all community members, especially those who are marginalized or underrepresented, are heard and valued.

In essence, Design Thinking equips not-for-profit organizations with a dynamic and inclusive framework for strategic planning. It fosters a culture of innovation, adaptability, and collaboration, which can help better address complex challenges faced by these organizations. By embedding Design Thinking into their strategic planning processes, nonprofits can create a strategic plan that is impactful, achievable and was create through an engaging, equitable and fun process!


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