Today I participated in a webinar hosted by the Stanford Social Innovation Review as part of their SSIR Live webinar series. SSIR is an incredible resource featuring practical content aimed at all social sector stakeholders.  More specifically, “Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) informs and inspires millions of social change leaders from around the world and from all sectors of society—nonprofits, business, and government. With webinars, conferences, magazines, online articles, podcasts, and more, SSIR bridges research, theory, and practice on a wide range of topics, including human rights, impact investing, and nonprofit business models.”

The webinar was part of a two part series with this second session focusing on Design Thinking to Drive Organizational Strategy. What caught my interest was the description of the webinar in the marketing materials: “Design thinking—a human-centered method for tackling complex problems—provides a powerful framework for pursuing work in the social sector. Social problems exist within intricate systems of stakeholders. Design thinking can help social sector organizations better understand the needs, motivations, and behaviors of those stakeholders.”

The webinar was led by Nadia Roumani, Director, Effective Philanthropy Lab, Stanford PACS and Lecturer, Stanford (design school) and Paul Brest, Emeritus Professor, Stanford Law School; Former President of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Since I often work with small, newer nonprofits, I wanted to call attention to a few things from this webinar that apply most easily to smaller nonprofits when they are going through a strategic planning process:

Define a beneficiary

While I do a lot of work with audiences and customers, I haven’t used the term beneficiary explicitly in terms of who receives the services that a nonprofit delivers. In a strategic planning process, an easy way to start incorporating some basic design thinking methods is simply to ask, “Do we know who our targeted beneficiary is and what they need?”

Engage the beneficiary and test prototype solutions with them

If the answer to the question above is no, it’s time for another design thinking step . . .conduct ethnographic research.  This is also known as talking directly to the people you are trying to serve! Never assume that YOU are the beneficiary and know exactly what they need without asking first.  This step integrates social science research practices into design thinking and then strategic planning.

Later, once you have prototyped some possible interventions or solutions it’s important to go back to the beneficiary and test your prototypes with them as well.  This step doesn’t have to be done in an overly elaborate way, but it’s important not to ignore it entirely and assume you already know what the beneficiary needs. With any ethnographic research, it’s important to go in with an OPEN and CURIOUS mindset to find the underlying motivations and triggers for that beneficiary (as emphasized in the webinar by Paul Brest).

Ask “How Might We?” Questions”

Another interesting design thinking element that small nonprofits could easily use in a strategic planning process is asking “How Might We?” questions.  This is a form of brainstorming focused on ideating possible solutions after you’ve already defined the scope of the problem, identified potential beneficiaries, etc.

In situations where human behavior change is the intended outcome for a nonprofit’s programs and services, applying design thinking concepts can really help to get at underlying, implicit factors could create a more powerful interventions.

If you want to more about deign thinking, click here for more information and resources from SSIR.  If you have used design thinking in a strategic planning process for your nonprofit, I’d love to hear how it went and what you learned.  Feel free to drop me a line at

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Stephanie Blackburn Freeth is the creator of The Strategy Tango.


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