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Published in Nonprofits
HQ, a homeless youth drop-in center, is one of many area nonprofits incorporating human-centered design into their culture. The Grand Rapids-based organization uses the technique to structure services, programs and technology platforms around direct input from the people HQ serves. Pictured above is an early prototype from the Youthfull Data Collaborative design process. HQ, a homeless youth drop-in center, is one of many area nonprofits incorporating human-centered design into their culture. The Grand Rapids-based organization uses the technique to structure services, programs and technology platforms around direct input from the people HQ serves. Pictured above is an early prototype from the Youthfull Data Collaborative design process. Courtesy Photo

Local nonprofits learn to apply human-centered design to drive outcomes

BY Sunday, August 07, 2016 01:16pm

Human-centered design is changing the way nonprofits across Grand Rapids approach complex problems.

The philosophy posits that the best solution to a challenge lies with people who are experiencing the challenge. Rather than an organization developing a service or product internally, the target user is brought into the process to provide insight.

“So often nonprofits get caught up in, ‘Well, we’re doing this a certain way because we’ve always done it’ or ‘That’s what our donors want us to do,’” said Bridget Clark Whitney, executive director of Kids’ Food Basket, a Grand Rapids food pantry. “Human-centered design is really putting the focus on the clientele. It’s ensuring that all of our programs, management structures and practices are specifically in line with what is best for the people we’re serving.”

To support the practice of human-centered design in Grand Rapids, the Steelcase Foundation last year awarded a $212,000 grant to the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. The center then partnered with Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD) of Ferris State University to create a three-year program for educating nonprofits. Specifically, Kids’ Food Basket, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) and HQ were chosen to play an integral role in the program. 

The three nonprofits participated in a one-day workshop in May, facilitated by KCAD. The workshop taught the principles and vocabulary of human-centered design, as well as potential activities or processes to use. KCAD has also put together a four-session workshop that will begin in October. 

Mary DeYoung, data and quality manager at HQ, a homeless youth services provider, said her organization was in some ways using the process from the start, but didn’t fully understand that until participating in the class.

For example, before the Grand Rapids-based HQ had even bought a building, Executive Director Shandra Steininger took local youth to potential locations and asked for their input.

“We didn’t know we were using human-centered design,” DeYoung said. “Since the class, we’ve been able to have a better language around our processes, which for nonprofits is really beneficial. It gives you a language that you can use to convince people … we’re not just winging it. We have intentionality.”


Since then, HQ has utilized human-centered design heavily in various programs, including the Youthfull Data Collaborative, which is funded by a separate grant from the Steelcase Foundation. The project’s goal is to create a technology platform that would “bridge and understand the barriers that young adults face in seeking safe and stable housing,” according to DeYoung, the project coordinator. This involves both traditional research and projects designed to get at the “latent needs” of homeless youth, or needs that often go unspoken.

Empathy is a large part of human-centered design and generally the first step in the process, DeYoung said. That means truly understanding and observing how someone feels. At one point, HQ wanted to know more about the lives of homeless youths when they were not at HQ or other service providers so the organization could “create something that would intercede or interact with their daily lives,” DeYoung said.

However, the group didn’t want to intrude upon their private spaces. Instead, HQ developed a project in which members were given a camera and asked to take pictures of what home meant to them, what they saw every day, and what they thought the community needs to see. Then, HQ workers discussed the photographs with the members, which opened the door to deeper conversation, according to DeYoung.

“It’s called a degree of separation,” she said. “People feel much more comfortable telling you details about that photo and how they interact with that photo than if it’s just about them.”

DeYoung explained that human-centered design means going beyond studying a group from a distance and writing a paper or making a proposal.

“The individuals themselves are never actually involved in the process,” she said. “It doesn’t actually uplift them or empower them in any new way. … The people we’re working with are not a focus group. They’re people experiencing real things.”

HQ used activities like this to determine what features homeless youth would like to see in a technology platform. Then the organization used a game known as Buy A Feature to help prioritize. Each feature was assigned a fictional price based on how difficult it would be to include, and then each participating member was given a set amount of money to “purchase” the features they’d most like to see, such as a map of service providers or eligibility requirements. 

Later, HQ tested an interactive prototype of the website as well. The end result is a synthesis of many of the most-requested features, intended to drastically reduce the amount of time youth spend online searching for resources.


For Kids’ Food Basket, human-centered design is now being used to develop the food pantry’s urban gardening initiative, according to Clark Whitney, who also serves on HQ’s board of directors.

“We’re finding this intersection of what the community needs and what we’re really good at,” she said. “We’re doing quite a few empathy interviews with schools, teachers and kids we serve to learn about their needs. We’re doing analogous research — what is working in other areas of the country and making an impact that we could be doing here in West Michigan?”

Clark Whitney said the workshop encouraged her organization to find the intersection of viability, feasibility and desirability when bringing a project to a community, an approach that’s shaped the urban gardening initiative.

WMEAC, an environmental advocacy group for nearly 50 years, has recently started using human-centered design to “look at membership, engagement and our use of social media,” said Christine Helms-Maletic, president of the nonprofit’s board of directors. The organization approached people who were engaging with WMEAC on social media but not yet registered as members to discover their reasoning for not joining, and what it would take to bring them in. Now, WMEAC isn’t even sure if membership is still “appropriate for our time,” Helms-Maletic said. 

The organization also plans to use human-centered design when approaching its next project, which involves increasing the quality and quantity of recycling in Kent County. While it may be easier for WMEAC to come up with solutions based on what the employees and board members know, Helms-Maletic said the whole point of human-centered design is questioning your own assumptions and gaining a new perspective. This especially applies to nonprofits who don’t have a diverse leadership team.

“For a long time, the environmental movement across the country was white, middle-class, college-educated,” she said. “So those were the folks trying to solve the problems, but that’s really limiting your point of view when you do that. You’re leaving out many, many people. Now I think we’re doing a much better job of realizing that this is a limited way of doing work.”

WMEAC has also trained its board in human-centered design practices, so as to integrate the approach into the nonprofit’s culture, rather than just using it as a project-to-project tool. 

HQ and Kids’ Food Basket are doing the same, according to Clark Whitney.

“It’s not just about the program, it’s about making the leaders better too,” she said. “HQ, being a newer organization, to have this opportunity for three years of human capacity work right off the bat, that really means a lot.”


The challenge with human-centered design, DeYoung said, is that it “requires an individual to be OK with uncertainty.”

“That’s a very uncomfortable space for people to be in normally,” she said, “but especially for nonprofits that always have to sound like they know what they’re doing and are only using best practices.”

As a self-employed grant writer and project manager, Helms-Maletic agreed, but not without caution.

“You’re telling the funder you’re going to do X, Y and Z in a straight line and at the end have certain outcomes,” Helms-Maletic said. “But the whole point of human-centered design is that you kind of do a little circle and zig-zag around a bit. At the same time, nonprofits want to be very good stewards of our donors’ and funders’ money.

“We want to be very careful to not just muddle around, but it’s a process and it’s a defined one. It’s just a different one.” 

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