3 Design Thinking Mindsets for Nonprofit Success

Tips and Tricks | Blog | 3 mins.
Written By: Kelsey Thompson | Posted On: 07/11/2023

by Naily Nevarez, 2023 MAP Fellow

Design thinking may be most-often used by creatives and designers, but I’ve witnessed first-hand how design thinking drives impact for nonprofit organizations. I’m a senior product designer at Planned Parenthood Federation of America and a MAP Fellow matched with Creative Commons, where my role is to help raise awareness of their legal tools.

Design thinking is an approach to problem-solving that can be applied by anyone. Every day, we encounter numerous challenges that affect our communities, organizations and society. If we choose to tackle them through the lens of design thinking, we ensure we tackle every challenge with empathy, creativity and innovation.

Human-centered approaches are at the heart of design thinking. This means that in every problem we face, we focus on the human at the center of it. It may seem obvious but, in practice, we often encounter competing priorities like business objectives, resource constraints and bias. This doesn’t mean we completely reject those other priorities in design thinking. Instead, we find a way to include or re-position them in a way that still benefits the human at the center of the project. 

Adopting human-centered approaches are critical to nonprofit work. Through design thinking, your organization can cultivate greater empathy for the people you serve, resulting in more effective solutions and deeper impact. To maintain a human-centered approach, we can adopt the following mindsets:  

1. Prioritize empathy-driven research

Human-centered (or empathy-driven) research is about getting to know the real people at the center of a problem or product. It involves gathering information on their needs, desires, pain points and behaviors, so we can design solutions that truly meet their needs. Many of us who work in nonprofits are deeply passionate and knowledgeable about the social issues we’re addressing. And for this reason, it can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming we already know what our communities want or need. But the design thinking mindset challenges us to set aside our biases and assumptions. By conducting thorough research—surveys, usability testing, interviews and more—we can fully understand what problem we’re solving for before we start developing solutions.

2. Embrace co-creation

Because we work with urgent matters in the nonprofit sector,  we might consider leaving out stakeholders to maximize speed and efficiency. However, this approach results in overlooking the valuable perspectives and insights of the very people we aim to serve. In the world of design thinking, we believe in the power of co-creation. Co-creation means involving our target audience in the development of a solution as much as possible, and ideally at every major step of the process. This ensures we catch errors early on and foster a sense of partnership with our audience. After all, the people who will be using our products or services are often the experts on their own needs.

3. Iterate, iterate, iterate

A major step in the design thinking process is prototyping. This involves creating a simple, stripped-down version of your solution to test it out and identify areas for improvement. If you’re building a new curriculum that incorporates social-emotional learning, a prototype might be conducting a mini-workshop with a handful of students. If you’re working on a new check-in experience for a hospital, a prototype might be a role-playing session with yourself and a handful of volunteers. If you’re creating an app to help reduce food waste, a prototype might be a series of pen and paper sketches showing the flow and experience of your app. By testing prototypes, we can quickly (and inexpensively) identify errors and opportunities for improvement. This is where iteration comes in: where we try again and again, going through multiple prototypes and embracing failure as a natural part of the process. In design thinking, failure is not defeat; it’s a stepping stone toward success. With each iteration, your solution will improve and maximize your social impact. 


As you start with design thinking, you’ll eventually realize the process isn’t always linear, and flexibility is essential. That’s why adopting these mindsets is far more powerful than following any particular process. By incorporating these three mindsets into your work and organization, you’ll transform design thinking from a one-off exercise to a deeply embedded process that informs your approach to every pressing challenge.