Design Thinking and Philanthropy: Are You Ready for It?

Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, recently spoke at a plenary session moderated by Grant Oliphant, president & CEO of The Pittsburg Foundation, during CEP’s national conference on Tuesday, May 21. Little Bets breaks down the elements of design thinking by sharing stories and revealing the mindsets and practices of some of the most creative thinkers we know, from Beethoven to Pixar Studios.

So what is design thinking? Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO, describes it as such:

“Design thinking is a deeply human process that taps into abilities we all have but get overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices. It relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional, and to express ourselves through means beyond words or symbols. Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky. Design thinking provides an integrated third way.”

Brown identifies three spaces working in relationship to one another not in sequence but overlapping that support design thinking:

  1. Inspiration – the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions.
  2. Ideation – the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas.
  3. Implementation – the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.

Sims’ research findings build on and simplify Brown’s definition to a set of often-counterintuitive experimental methods that innovators not just practice but embrace:

  • Failing quickly to learn fast
  • Trying imperfect ideas
  • Engaging in highly-immersed observation that free their minds, opening them up to making unexpected connections and perceiving invaluable insights

He notes that these methods unshackle innovators from the constraints of conventional planning, analytical thinking, and linear problem solving often overemphasized at the expense of creativity. And in his mind, the philanthropic sector is uniquely positioned to integrate a design thinking mentality to its core way of being.

What are the implications for philanthropy? As with many things, it depends. And even more so, it depends on the foundation. And with that in mind, I offer the following questions, based on my close to 20 years of working with philanthropic sector organizations, to those of you wondering if you are ready to make little bets:

  1. What is your risk tolerance? Not just at the staff level but at the board level. In short, organization wide.
  2. Can you create an environment and organizational culture that provides the space to “try?”
  3. What current processes and practices can you adapt or adopt to be able to use the information learned from trying?
  4. How might you shift your use of or understanding of data, information, and evaluation to support design thinking?
  5. Do you have staff/advisors who either have or can build the capacity to be creative?
  6. Which is more important to you, the means or the ends? If it is the former, think twice.
  7. Given responses to the previous six questions, now what?


Jara Dean-Coffey is the principal and founder of jdcPartnerships. You can find her on Twitter @jdeancoffey.

2013 Conference, foundations, Little Bets, Peter Sims, Pursuing Results
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