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  • Year One: A Designer’s Adventure in the Nonprofit World

    This 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 mid-2000s.

    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 professional challenge.

    Today 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 observations: 

    • Managing multiple stakeholders is the name of the game. This is common practice in most design firms because the delivery of services requires coordination of multiple stakeholders; similarly, nonprofits must maintain productive relationships with a wide variety of public and private sector partners and clients. In both cases, management and communication skills are critical to transcend organizational boundaries.
    • Achieving a culture of innovation is a worthy challenge. Designers understand that innovation requires trial and error, and the iterative prototyping process is built into most, if not all, client engagement models. Unfortunately, the potential for failure is not as acceptable to nonprofits who deliver critical social services, and experimentation is not the norm. Committed leadership is required to guide the cultural shifts required to make this change.
    • R&D is too often undervalued. Innovative businesses retain earnings or seek outside investment to pursue the development of new products and services. Nonprofit organizations often struggle to secure similar funding once a new program has been launched. Finding creative, low-cost ways to support continuous improvement is an important starting point to reversing this trend.
    • Working with less really is the norm. Unfortunately, it’s not a cliché that nonprofits are routinely under-funded, under-staffed, and under-trained, and this reality perpetuates a scarcity mindset. Constraints such as these are embraced by the design community since they can contribute to better ideas and more focused solutions. Refusing to believe that there’s only one way to get things done can pave the way to greater success for nonprofits as well.

    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.

    About the Author: Laura Weiss is the Vice President of Service Innovation at the Taproot Foundation, an organization leading the pro bono movement and making business talent available to nonprofits working to improve society. She leads the creation and development of all Taproot programs. Previous to joining Taproot, Weiss spent nine years as an Associate Partner and Practice Director with design consultancy IDEO, where she focused on service design. A former architect and educator, Weiss is a member of the Board of Directors of Public Architecture and has served on the Board of Governors of the Association of Yale Alumni. She holds a BArch with honors from Cornell University, an MArch from Yale University, and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.
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