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Using Design Thinking for A Foundation’s Investment Strategy

Field Notes, MFG Archive

In our latest From the Field, Beth Kanter talks about her work with the Brainerd Foundation to implement a design thinking process to get feedback from grantees


What if a funder got real-time input from its grantees and other partners to develop its investment strategy?  What if they used a design thinking process to not only get feedback from grantees but as a way to develop a more agile way of working?   I was thrilled to work with the Brainerd Foundation staff to help design and facilitate a design lab using techniques based on Luma Institute methods earlier in the year.   Here’s what I learned about the facilitating design thinking processes:


What Is A Design Lab?  Why Use One? 


I’ve been facilitating design labs for nonprofits and foundations, and continue to be excited about them because it is a way to generate feedback and ideas that can improve a strategy or program in service of the participants being served.  In some ways, a design lab can be thought of as “participatory research and testing.”


Design thinking is a set of principles that includes—empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure.   It is a useful technique for creating a more responsive, flexible organizational culture as well as coming up with more innovative ideas for programs and grants that are a good fit.


Over the past twenty years, the Brainerd Foundation has invested nearly $50 million in organizations working to protect the environment in the Northwest. In 2020, the foundation will close its doors.    As part of its sunset strategy, the foundation is developing an initiative to support 21st Century Advocacy.


The purpose of the Design Lab was to answer two key questions to gather input for its strategy:


  • How can the Brainerd Foundation and its philanthropic partners accelerate the transition to 21st Century advocacy for grantees?


  • What investments can the Brainerd Foundation make over the next five years to help build an effective infrastructure of advocacy that builds power for conservation that will endure beyond the foundation’s sunset?


We spent a lot of time identifying grantees and other funders, but also people who be “thought catalysts” or subject matter experts in “21st Century advocacy” to bring into the room.  The process for the one and half day lab used techniques that fall into these categories:




Looking and Observing:  Unpacking the Context for 21st Century Advocacy 


The design thinking process starts off with getting the context.    The Brainerd Foundation shared some of their initial thinking and curiosity about 21st Century.   This was followed by a presentations and discussion with four thought leaders who shared their insights and knowledge around four different themes:






Nicole Lampe, Resource Media, blogged two summaries based on the ideas and discussion:




As part of the context setting, participants were tasked to do “active listening,” taking note of a strengths, challenges, and opportunities in what the speakers shared.    I facilitated the discussion with the design lab participants and experts.    The key insights were captured and tweeted by Nicole Lampe and are gathered in this Storify.  Notes from the presentations as well as photos can be found here.


Understanding: Landscape and Opportunity Analysis


The context setting kicked off the lab’s first half-day.  The next morning participants gathered to make individual and collective sense of the ideas that were shared by experts.     The techniques that help you get at understanding are not always fun or easy to do.    It requires stepping back and seeing the big picture.


The first technique I used to get at individual understanding of the design challenge.  It is called “Rose, Bud, Thorn.”    Participants reviewed their notes from the expert sessions, and wrote down challenges on blue sticky notes, strengths on pink sticky notes, and opportunities on green sticky notes.


To generate group or collective understanding, I facilitated a cluster or affinity analysis of the different themes.   After we had all the sticky notes on the board, we had generated a landscape analysis from the grantee’s point of view.


Sometimes the enemy of innovation is not solving the right problem.   So, the next step in the process was to have the group generate a series of questions to serve as a springboard for brainstorming ideas for program prototypes. Participants voted on the questions that would be most important for the Brainerd Foundation to consider in its strategy:


  • How might we adopt a hybrid model of new and old power?


  • How do we leverage the “rain” of culture change?


  • How might we create a funding model that nourishes flexibility and innovation?


  • How might we reimagine our goals so they aren’t trapped by old power values and/or culture?


  • How might we better invest in young people and/or other key folks so they stay in the movement?


  • How might we experiment with organizational restructuring or deconstructing?


  • How might we be complicit in preserving power or dispersing it?


  • How might we create a culture of sharing and listening that is less prescriptive?


Making:  Ideation and Rapid Prototyping


This part of the process is the most because everyone gets to unleash their creative thinking.   We had participants work in small teams using a structured brainstorming approach called the “Creative Matrix.”   They got to select or create brainstorming questions for each column and using sticky notes generated ideas for different components of the strategy such as grants/technical assistance, convenings, partners, and sharing.   To get people in the mindset for brainstorming, I lead them through a couple of improvisation exercises that teach acceptance and openness to new ideas.


Participants were encouraged to focus on quantity of ideas and not to self-edit.  All together, participants came up with over 500 ideas.  (Of course, there were some prizes involved!)


The next step in the process was for participants to evaluate some of the ideas using a 2×2 called the importance/difficulty grid.  This helped each team look at the ideas in terms of the cost and impact and prioritize what they thought were some of the best ideas.


The last step was for each team to generate a rapid prototype of their idea to present to the group as a team in three minutes or less.   Participants were tasked with creating a concept poster, timeline, or magazine cover to share their idea with the group.   This is an important part of the process because you have to be able to explain your idea quickly and clearly.    Here’s the concepts that were generated:


Concept 1: Listen Up


This approach focuses on listening and looking at the infrastructure and DNA of the conservation community with humility, imagination, and curiosity. The Brainerd Foundation would follow and fund the ideas of new leaders. After projects were funded, we’d continue the virtuous circle by returning to listening mode. Funding for these new initiatives and projects would be freed up by reducing the number of greens by half, recognizing that you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that got you into it. This approach would also create capacity for new voices and new ideas to be engaged in the environmental movement.


Concept 2: Mission: Possible


Mission: Possible focuses on a 100% clean power future achieved by investing in a new set of power brokers: moms, artists, workers, and communities of color who care passionately about the futures of their communities and are working together to achieve a safer, healthier, more prosperous Northwest. The Brainerd Foundation would invest in these individuals and demonstrate sharing and dispersing power, by supporting leadership development, campaigns, and strategies where a deep investment in diverse, multi-generational communities could bubble up. These new leaders wouldn’t self-identify as environmentalists, but would be motivated to continue driving victories for their communities. New investments by the foundation would trigger new investments by other funders around the region.


Concept 3: Foster Sharing & Innovation


In this approach, the Brainerd Foundation would focus on fostering sharing and innovation by thinking differently, funding differently, collaborating with other funders differently, and sharing differently—all starting tomorrow. The foundation would provoke new thinking by defining big ideas, contemplating what a new/old hybrid power model might look like, and evaluating whether nonprofit boards of directors are useful or just in the way. The foundation would fund differently by bringing grantees to the table to develop grantmaking guidelines, offering un-branded grantmaking to coalitions, and providing funds for research and innovation. Collaborating more with other funders would led to the creation of a pooled fund, more multi-year funding, a common grant application, and the ability to be more nimble. Sharing what we’re doing and learning would expand the impact more broadly; we could convene an annual gathering to showcase successes, share failures and create a space for grantees and funders to build, measure, and learn together.


Concept 4: 21st Century Enquirer


This concept responds to the question: “How do we develop a funding model that nourishes innovation and flexibility?” The answer centered on the idea of a revolving loan program (“loans for good”) with the Brainerd Foundation giving loans (rather than grants) for organizing that is monetized and can be repaid. This concept also included groups from different sectors doing long-term strategic or campaign planning together, with some groups daring to merge. Groups would also get together to discuss failures and lessons learned, so the broader community can be more successful.


Concept 5: New Power / Old Power Hybrid


This approach centered on a vision of diverse, powerful people living in a vibrant and healthy natural environment brought to life by a shift in culture. To this end, the Brainerd Foundation would reach beyond the usual suspects to listen to the needs and ideas of people in the environmental and social justice movements, and bring in new people and approaches via a “find them and fund them” strategy. New power and old power leaders would have opportunities to learn from and mentor each other. And nonprofit staff would receive cross-cultural exchange grants to be temporarily embedded (1–2 weeks) in another organization from different sectors or regions where they would develop new skills and knowledge while helping another organization with a campaign or project.

‘Is your organization using design thinking to get feedback from program stakeholders, get new ideas, or help change your organization’s culture?’

Concept 6: Dinner Party Fund


The dinner party concept responds to the question: “How do you leverage the “rain” of cultural changes?” A series of dinner parties would create space to bridge the personal and professional, build new relationships, and have conversations that we can’t have in other settings. Mindful of the power dynamics of inviting other people to our tables, this fund would be flexible, providing resources for conservationists to spend time in the community, so they could connect without an agenda and without wearing their organizational hats. This fund would focus on creating opportunities to hear from young leaders, diverse communities, and prospective allies. It would be nimble and able to fund spontaneous dinner parties quickly, providing funds to both individuals and nonprofits. The Brainerd Foundation would also host more formal dinners to both model and encourage the type of behavior it hopes to fund, learn from, and encourage in others. These dinner parties would inform the rest of the foundation’s funding by serving as an incubator to spark and experiment with new ideas.


Finally, we used sticky dot voting to identify which details and overall concepts resonated the most!  We finished with a group photo and fun co-creation reflection.


Now What? 


Of course, creating a funding investment strategy is not the end result of a design lab, but improving the impact of a strategy by getting feedback from others is.   The Brainerd Foundation staff is taking the rich documentation and ideas and incorporating into their program strategy and plan.


Design thinking began as a way to improve to improve consumer products, but this example and others like it show that design thinking principles have the potential to be even more powerful when applied to social change or big challenges involved in grantees to engage with and adopt innovative new ways of working, like 21st Century Advocacy.


Is your organization using design thinking to get feedback from program stakeholders, get new ideas, or help change your organization’s culture?  What has your experience been?

Many thanks to Beth Kanter for her piece. Be sure to follow her on Twitter at @Kanter!


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