(This article was originally published by Impact Design Hub.)
The notion that the work of social change necessarily means both scrambling to find funding and endless employee self-sacrifice has never made sense to me. While working at a handful of startups and nonprofits over the past decade, I’ve continually wondered why solving the world’s toughest social challenges remains financially undervalued and tireless to sustain. For example, when I first entered the social impact space, I spent my university years uncomfortably asking friends and family for donations to support healthcare centers in Managua, Nicaragua that relied on bi-yearly deliveries of suitcases full of unwanted U.S. prescriptions to operate.
More recently, I invested months in developing and implementing a much-needed (and wanted) program for vulnerable, rural communities in Nigeria to share feedback with their healthcare providers. But the initiative failed to secure the long-term funding necessary for it to continue mostly because it just didn’t jive with donor priorities at the time. Over and over again I’ve felt trapped within models that relied on handouts from individuals and the enthusiasm of donors for their survival. I became resigned to the belief that, as a service designer, I’d likely never lead work solely informed by genuine need rather than by funders’ interests.
However since joining The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), I’ve been fascinated by the organisation’s ability to accumulate meaningful work through flexible funding models — models that allow leading academic researchers, social work experts, and experienced social impact designers to craft project briefs that truly address and solve problems, rather than just implement funders’ flavor-of-the-month solutions. But from my very first week at TACSI, its leaders stressed to me that the organization didn’t always have these opportunities; that only three years ago the organization found itself with dwindling funds, no projects on the horizon, and was preparing to close its doors.
In a world where social inequity is the norm — where 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day, and where our governance and public service systems perpetuate cycles of poverty — it doesn’t quite make sense that organizations fighting for justice and social change strain to find projects that pay enough for their organizations to stay afloat and, thus, to continue to do important and needed work. Such is the case because, while opportunities to make the world a better place are infinite, funding for those initiatives is often highly constrained by unachievable timelines and predetermined solutions on the part of funders.
Ann Goggins Gregory & Don Howard call this the nonprofit starvation cycle, where pressure to “take what we can get” forces nonprofits to “underspend and underreport, perpetuating funders’ unrealistic expectations. Over time, funders expect grantees to do more and more with less and less — a cycle that slowly starves nonprofits.”
The value of design and innovation work for the social sector is becoming more well known to funders, and many human-centered-design-focused organizations are working to better justify why good design research and innovation work takes time and is expensive. However, even with increased awareness of “co-design” and “social innovation,” it can understandably feel risky for governments and foundations to invest in new approaches promising yet-to-be-discovered outputs. Especially challenging for donors is taking a chance on newcomers to a particular sector, who have no reputation or track record of success.
Understanding Where We Went Wrong — When Design Orgs Need to Do Ethnography and Innovation on Their Own Business
As TACSI’s chief executive officer, Carolyn Curtis knows the tribulations of selling design-for-social-change work well. She openly admits that TACSI once had a failed business model. A seed-funded innovation itself, TACSI was born experimenting with their own models and processes. The organization’s initial strategy recognized that public services could work better for people if they were designed with the vulnerable communities who rely on those services. TACSI relied on grants to design new public services and sought to “sell” their already-designed solutions to government agencies, donors, and NGOs. They had beautiful packaging of their concepts which meaningfully celebrated the voice of end users. They conducted rigorous research, producing social innovations deeply in tune with the spectrum of beneficiaries’ specific needs.
It seemed brilliant in theory: TACSI was replicating a product design business model in a social services space, delivering answers to the questions decision makers didn’t have time to solve. In meeting after meeting, they approached high-level policy makers and NFP leaders with polished reports and gripping personas, proven outcomes for how effectively these programs helped change the quality of life for Australia’s poorest, even cost-benefit analyses that calculated how much money government would save from using their early intervention service models. But time and again, it was difficult to find sources to implement or fund their programs.
Ultimately, Curtis and her team reached a point where they had no new projects in the pipeline, no backup cash resources, and few meaningful relationships within the governance systems they sought to change. TACSI undertook significant cost cutting measures to buy time — subletting their office spaces to other organisations and workshop facilitation for additional income streams — knowing this was not going to solve the larger sustainability issue they reduced staff size and prepared to end the organisation which meant halting their already launched solutions that older people and at-risk families were depending on. Most of all, they realized they might have to accept that there might not be “market demand” for helping the people who needed it most.
Curtis explains that in acknowledging that the organisation was on the brink of failure, they were forced to ask hard questions and respond to the uncomfortable answers they received. With six months of financed run-time remaining, they embarked on their own research about their processes — internally. By reaching out to funders and potential partners to better understand their needs, they realized that they needed to expand their focus beyond just end-users to include donors and actors within government institutions. They learned the painful lesson that potential partners and funders saw them as inaccessible and exclusive, offering finished, polished, and packaged service designs that spoke for communities but not to their ultimate clients: government agencies, nonprofits, and philanthropies.
While they fundamentally thought they were doing the right thing, they were actually operating on the assumption that partners and funders didn’t want to be part of the design journey. After hearing one partner say: “We don’t want your products, we want to learn how to design for ourselves,” they realised they had built a business model for a market that didn’t exist…