past January marked my first anniversary with the Taproot Foundation—an organization leading the pro bono movement through connecting business talent with nonprofits working to improve society—and since my transition from the private sector to social innovation. It wasn’t until March of this year that I was able to pause for reflection and digest my experiences. Needless to say, it’s been a busy and exciting time.
I started out my career as an architect, seemingly
a world away from the role I’m in today. I practiced professionally for eight
years, got my license, and flirted with a tenure track faculty position. After
experiencing the recession of the early 1990s, I realized that it was the
business economy, not just architects, that determined the design of the built
environment, and I returned to school for an MBA. I figured I had a better chance
of shepherding design into the world as an insider.
From business school, I turned to management
consulting to build credentials as a strategist, and then parlayed that
experience into a role in product innovation at IDEO because it seemed like the most progressive sandbox in which to unite
design and business know-how. A focus on physical products evolved into an
opportunity to apply innovation methodologies to the design of consumer
services, something that was gaining the attention of business in the
In reflecting on my professional path, it became
clear to me that my career narrative has followed a certain logic: I have
perpetually sought new contexts in which to apply my skills as a designer. So
after more than a decade serving the innovation needs of clients in large for-profit
business enterprises, I began looking for an “underserved” market that might
benefit from my kind of experience. It occurred to me that U.S.-based
nonprofits—service innovators in their own right—rarely had access to, or the
means to work with, traditional innovation consultancies. Through strategic
networking and a little bit of luck, I began a series of meetings with the
founders and directors of both Public Architecture and the Taproot Foundation, and I realized I had discovered my next
I have come to view my role as an innovation Sherpa of sorts, embarking on cross-sector adventures with a well-honed set
of tools. As I reflect on my first 12 months as a design-trained business
professional on staff at a nonprofit organization, I can offer four
Because optimism is the designer’s natural mindset,
we view challenges as exciting opportunities to ask, “what if…?” Today there
are hundreds of us making important contributions to solving the world’s
toughest social challenges through participation in a range of pro bono programs.
The opportunities to make an impact are vast, but more Sherpas are needed. Here’s to increasing the designer ranks on this shared adventure.
Looking for additional ways to design for good? This list of organizations and programs is a great place to start. There are many more opportunities out there—so if you know of a resource we should add here let us know!
Design for Good
“Good design is a strategic, sustainable, ethical response to a business problem,” writes strategic consultant David Berman.
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