Machines or Designers? Why Designing for Social Impact Matters

by | Jun 21, 2022 | Emma Willder

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A guest post by Kerry at Brilliant Thing

The non-profit and public sectors rely on 2 things to have social impact, money and people. 

  • NonProfit Pro states that developing inclusive, empathetic work cultures is a vital  fundraising tactic for 2022.
  • Forbes explain that meaning and purpose are the top features that people want at work

So why have 44% of non profit workers said they were considering leaving the sector as a consequence of the pandemic? Well I was one of the ones who left, despite having huge meaning and purpose at work, and loving working with my team and partners. I wrote a diary every day of my notice period to help me work out why, the lessons from this have helped me develop a new way of thinking.

My diary captured 20+ years experience of working in the non-profit sector, the relationships, frustrations, joys and meaning.  I wrote about the struggle to find solutions to ever expanding social issues and losing talented people, with creativity and ideas and funding instability damaging work. 

Uncertainty is a bigger problem than ever before.  The tap of covid funds is being turned off and short term contracts are ending, team wellbeing is fragile.  The temptation is to double down, remove the risk of trying something new and churn out results. Yet without innovative, energised, connected people, the work we do starts to stagnate and have less social impact. Funders invest less, work gets taken for granted, partnerships dissolve and individuals burn out. 

A simple solution emerged from my diary and shaped the work I do now

Rather than think like machines, organisations must think like designers. 

  • Funders want to invest in people that design fresh solutions to big challenges. 
  • Designing in learning experiences, space for diverse and innovative thinking, empathy, collaboration time and creativity keeps teams energised, committed and fresh thinking

Brilliant Thing is a design-coaching and creative facilitation practice.  I draw on my experience within Non-Profit sectors, CVS Infrastructure and NHS management, unusually combining this with background in participatory arts, to support non-profits and public sector teams to design innovative work cultures. My own experience of burnout, health challenges and limiting situations provides deep understanding of what does- and doesn’t work.

Making the work matter more

There are around 166,000 charities in the UK, with a total annual turnover of just under £48bn.  There are more than 100,000 social enterprises and they contribute £60bn to the economy. Councils are debating if they should have charitable arms, and public sector teams increasingly operate with social aims. The health sector already has 230 NHS charities around the UK supporting the work of the institution.

In these organisations, with stretched resources, often internal training and development is focused on entry level roles.  Increasing pressure is placed on leaders shoulders and expectation placed on teams, without the personal, professional and organisational development needed to ensure leaders and teams thrive.

External facilitation, brings in new energy, ideas and approaches, feeding leaders and teams with skills and original thinking they can apply in their work.  This helps individuals feel that they are part of a bigger whole, able to contribute to and benefit from collaborative work, collectively improving wellbeing, relationships and outcomes. Attracting investment and buy-in from funders, partners and beneficiaries. Making the work matter more.

Through courses, coaching and retreats, Brilliant Thing offers development opportunities for non profit and public sector teams, specialising in:

  • Creative Facilitation – using art making and storytelling to create learning experiences 
  • Design Thinking – an innovation methodology, used to find solutions
  • Reflective Practice – an insightful approach to evaluation

When is the right time?

The time for my career transition was when the pressure and support became unbalanced. I encourage teams to invest in additional support when a change is expected or happening, a new strategy, product or service is being developed, as part of onboarding, teambuilding or board development processes, or to plan for and evaluate impact.  

Organisations that have benefited from this support include arts charities, Local Authority OD Teams, Sustainability Membership groups and Leadership development programmes as well as coaches, facilitators and leaders investing in their personal development.

If burnout and stagnation feel like risks in your organisation, I offer free 30min introductory empathy and innovation calls to identify how we might work together, to invest in your team culture and practices. 

Feeling the burn? You may be interested in the next retreat from Brilliant Thing Empathy and Innovation Retreat for non-profit leaders.

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