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June 29, 2015

Design Thinking leads to Social Innovation, Accelerated Progress

Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods.” As innovation has become more prominent in the social sector, United Way of Greater Cincinnati has begun to employ new thinking strategies to aid our work.

At the 2015 Bold Goals Summit, UWGC president and CEO Rob Reifsnyder challenged those gathered: “We’re headed in the right direction and important progress has been made, but we need to accelerate the pace of change.”

That call to move faster spurred United Way to think differently about the role innovation plays in our work, most specifically, social innovation. That different thinking led to exploring concepts that, while new to the nonprofit realm, have been applied for some time in the consumer world.


Design Thinking for Social Innovation

baker headshot compressedMike Baker, a director of community impact, is one United Way staff member tasked with helping move United Way’s community impact work forward through innovation. He credits Rachel Griner, who specialized in innovation and design for P&G, with introducing the concept of "design thinking" to United Way in 2013.

“Design thinking is a creative problem-solving method that focuses on putting the user central to the process,” said Baker. “It’s really diving into a deeper understanding of who will be the ultimate user of the product – in our case a program or policy – and making sure to design around their wants and needs.”

Not long after hearing about design thinking, Baker read an article about it in the Stanford Social Innovation Review regarding its applications in the social sector. Needless to say, his interest was piqued. 

Stanford’s Institute of Design defines five steps to the design thinking process:

  1. Empathize

  2. Define

  3. Ideate

  4. Prototype

  5. Test.

The design thinker uses empathy to understand the user, forms a user point of view to address with the design, explores a large range of ideas to formulate a wide variety of possible solutions, transforms the ideas into a physical form, and, lastly, tests the prototypes to learn more about the user and refine the original ideas.

Baker ultimately connected with Ramsey Ford and Kate Hanisian, co-founders of the non-profit social innovation firm, Design Impact. Design Impact collaborates with passionate people, brings design and innovation practice to the table, and works together to design a better world.

“We at United Way felt like we needed to do more than just fund toward innovation, but to actually build skills within the social sector to develop better ideas, and to make sure those ideas are really user-centered,” said Baker. “Design thinking made a lot of sense to us as a methodology to do that, and that’s how the origins of Studio C came together.”

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Design Thinking Process Shows Value in City Heights

Studio C began in 2014 focused primarily on design training for nonprofits, and it had success. One example is a partnership between the Housing Authority of Covington (HAC) and the Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission (NKCAC). 

The two organizations were working to increase kindergarten readiness for families in the City Heights complex (one of UWGC’s Bold Goals is tied to kindergarten readiness). 

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 12.05.14 PMCity Heights sits up on a hill, and for decades the providers thought the biggest barrier to children enrolling in Head Start, a preschool experience targeted to low-income children, was lack of transportation. After participating in Studio C, they found otherwise.“They thought they needed to think creatively on how to get the kids off the hill or how to get Head Start on to it,” said Baker. “We had them go do interviews with folks who lived there. They did 10-15 interviews and what continually came up as the top barrier for their children was that they felt the child would learn everything they needed to know when they went to kindergarten, or that they were too little to go to school.”

The HAC and Head Start were able to gain the insight that the mothers really didn’t understand what Head Start was, or what the curriculum was or how the program was run. The solutions ended up being centered around engaging and building relationships with the mothers and children.

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As part of their prototyping a solution, they brought activities to City Heights, beginning with a parking lot event featuring a mobile bubble machine. Kids gravitated to it, followed by their mothers, who were able to meet Head Start staff. In subsequent events, Head Start brought a bounce house, petting zoo, pumpkin patch, and other activities, hoping to show parents and their kids the sorts of activities that are part of the Head Start curriculum, of learning through play, as opposed to sitting at desks and looking at a blackboard.



The number of families who enrolled in Head Start grew from 13 to 36 in a number of weeks, and their retention rates increased as well.

Both the HAC and Head Start are back again for the second year of Studio C, and both have applied for, and will receive, technical assistance to work on new projects.

For 2015, Studio C reorganized its efforts to focus more on a community building approach, rather than merely training sessions. It is broken into three six-week trimesters which generally follow three phases of the design process. A group must attend a certain number of sessions before they can apply for a technical assistance grant, which equates to about 25 hours of design assistance over a six-week period to move their project forward.

Studio C is just one example of the role innovations such as design thinking can help accelerate the pace of change to achieve the Bold Goals for Our Region. United Way has also held design sessions with staff and some agency and community partners to explore new ideas in various areas of the work we do. And, it’s being used at other United Ways to create new and enhanced donor and community engagement efforts

United Way will soon launch a Social Innovation Committee  to connect us to tools, resources and people who can expand our thinking.

“The committee would be made up of community volunteers working with our staff here,” said Baker. “Design thinking is only one tool—and it’s one that we are very fond of at the moment – but what are the other things that we could be doing?”

For more information on the role of design thinking in United Way's work, you can contact Mike Baker at

For more information on Studio C, check out