Traditional program design typically involved only two parties: the organization and its design team. The organization needs something made, and the design team makes it for them. It is a relatively streamlined process, but it neglects feedback from a very important stakeholder: the community you are serving.

What if we approached program design within the nonprofit sector from a new angle, where beneficiaries actually weigh in on design-related decisions and help create a program that best addresses their needs?

It’s called participatory design: the idea that all interested parties – not just the designer and the organization, but the beneficiary, too, and even those adjacent to him or her – should have a hand in designing the program, product, or service. The result? A more user-centered end product that more accurately and fully satisfies community needs and fosters a stronger connection among stakeholders.

Getting Into The “Design” Frame of Mind

The first and most important step happens before innovation even begins: establishing a human-centered mindset in the workplace that permeates the entire creative process. The philosophy of human-centered design says that the best design is always in service of people, and that in a participatory environment, anyone can be a designer. The main obstacle, then, is this: how do we bring non-designers into the design process and give them the tools they need to contribute?

In his book Innovation for People, Luma Institute founder and CEO Peter Maher argues that the most important skills an innovator can foster are fundamentally human-centered: 

  • observing human experience 
  • analyzing challenges and 
  • envisioning future possibilities. 

In other words, by allowing more people to participate in the design process, we naturally get to observe a broader array of ideas and perspectives. This means that solutions consider more opportunities and can help your programs yield more impactful results.

Getting Collaborative With Team Activities

To foster greater collaboration, community and empathy, Maher leads a handful of activities based on these principles in immersive workshops, run alongside co-facilitator Amy Hedrick of the Product and Design Innovation team at Intuit. They kick things off by having participants use sticky notes to articulate challenges in their practices, then expertly create a network map that links those challenges together. It’s a simple, universal way to immediately start learning from each other, and it’s especially useful when bringing novice designers into the design process.

Another invaluable exercise Maher and Hedrick run, called “Paper Prototype,” involves having small groups use paper to create a physical model of a new idea. For example, the room can be broken into four-person teams. Each team takes twenty minutes to design and build a paper prototype for a new type of car radio, followed by a “user test” of this paper prototype. Naturally, even though each small group may believe their product to be intuitive and easy to use during the design phase, the peer-to-peer test will reveal design flaws the groups didn’t foresee.

These are just a few of the exercises Maher and Hedrick lead in the course of their workshops, but they hammer home the importance of

  •  user feedback and involvement from the earliest phases of the design process, and 
  • getting all designers, users or otherwise, on the same page.

Eager to take a participatory approach to your program design, but not sure where to begin? Take Philanthropy University’s free five-week online Girl Centered Design course. With just 2-3 hours a week, you will learn how to design a program with and for your community and be given the opportunity to  practice some of the steps with your own design team.

Enroll your organization today.

July 25, 2019


Beth Kanter is a Master Trainer, Speaker, and Author of the Happy Healthy Nonprofit (

Beth Kanter Trainer

Connor is the CEO and Co-Founder of Philanthropy U; Passionate about systems-level change, local social impact and education reform.