Four Nonprofits Changing Society With Design Thinking

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Written by Digital Surgeons,
• 5 min read

Design thinking driven-innovation, like Airbnb’s use of higher quality pictures which resulted in a doubling of weekly revenue, are helping businesses channel creativity, critical thinking, and empathy to produce human-centered designs. But for-profit businesses aren’t the only ones benefiting from the design thinking framework.

There are design thinkers, like Jeanne Liedtka and Randy Salzman, who are leveraging the methodology to fix problems in the social sector, such as education, healthcare, security, agriculture, and transportation.

Nonprofit organizations around the globe are using design thinking to improve the welfare of society and address problems that plague the greater good. These organizations are “thinking big” with design thinking in order to help their communities and society more broadly.

Here are four organizations that demonstrate how design thinking can tackle challenges on any scale.


CERN, which stands for The European Organization for Nuclear Research (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), operates the largest particle physics lab in the world.

One of the initiatives at CERN was to create a collaborative space where the scientists could get together and speak called Ideasquare.When the building is not fully occupied by research projects and master-level student teams, Ideasquare also hosts “Hackathons“. These are typically one to three day innovation events during which selected teams work to construct a prototype.

One outcome from this space was that a team created an innovative learning tool for teaching children with autism. CERN engineers have applied a picture recognition technology to help teach autistic children how to recognize images and real 3D-objects.

Collaboration can result in the unexpected.

2) San Francisco Opera House

Two students from the Stanford d. School worked with the San Francisco Opera House (SFO) on a project called “Barely Opera” to determine how the opera could make the best use of a new 299-seat venue. Though the SFO had a perfectionist work culture, design thinking emphasizes rapid prototyping, which, by default, understands that failure is unavoidable on the road to success.

The SFO team approached strangers on the street and asked if they would be willing to give them 5-10 minutes of their time to get feedback. The strangers then filled out information on ipads that helped the SFO understand that different age groups have different needs. Altogether, this rapid prototyping exercise took less than six hours!

This exercise and a series of other design thinking related activities convinced the SFO to rethink the way they marketed opera to young adults.

Design thinking has assisted the SFO in breaking old habits while producing a new ethos for connecting with a new audience. As Matthew Shilvock, the general director of the SFO, said, “Design thinking is liberating for a company tightly constrained by contracts and expectations!”

3) Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor

Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), a nonprofit located in London, partnered with a renowned design consultancy to develop sanitation products for people in Ghana. Consultants were sent to Ghana to speak with customers to find out what they needed. By using an empathic approach, a core pillar in the design thinking methodology, WSUP was able to cultivate a personal relationship with the local customers.

A portable toilet was prototyped with the goal of quickly getting a product in front of the customers in order to see what worked and what needed to be improved. “Make it real fast” is a great way to produce a human-centered design that responds to the customers’ painpoints while also allowing for tinkering.   

As a result of WSUP’s partnership with the design consultancy, WSUP has make in-house toilets more affordable in Ghana.

4) Adalbert Raps Stiftung

Butcher shops have been on the decline in Germany for years partly because they have  trouble competing with supermarkets. Adalbert Raps Stiftung (ARS), a German nonprofit foundation focused on the food sector, turned to the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam to create “meatshop 2.0.”

The HPI School of Design proceeded to assemble a cross functional team comprising two designers, an engineering student, and a PhD student who worked on education, and a journalist. After the team members interviewed butchers, meat-lovers, and vegetarians, they realized that customers wanted more convenience from the butcher shops. The team’s challenges were compounded by the butchers themselves who were very traditional and reluctant to try new strategies.

The team understood that they had to show empathy towards the butchers who feared that their craft was dying in a changing world. Following the testing of several ideas, an event was created called the Trüffeljagd (“truffle hunt”), which takes place in Berlin and gives butchers the chance to interact with avant-garde meat producers.

The Trüffeljagd has given butchers the opportunity to create butcher shops to build relationships with younger Germans by using online tools and to tell the story behind their products.  

Thanks to the ARS’ initiative, the cross functional team from the HPI School of Design Thinking leveraged empathy to address painpoints of both the sellers and the customers. The result is that butcher shops have found a way to preserve their values while also marketing themselves to new customer segments.

Let’s connect to discuss how design thinking can change your nonprofit organization.