5 Ways that HCD Can Improve A Social Impact Strategy


Rogers Family Foundation’s Dana Wellhausen, Senior Director of Strategic Operations and Bonnie Look, Grants & Program Operations Manager, participated in MDC Network’s “Human Centered Design for Social Impact Communicators” workshop.  After the workshop, they incorporated HCD into their place-based foundation’s strategic approach.

Here are five ways they found how it could lift their social change practice.

1.    Reframes the problem constructively.

“As a foundation focused on public education in Oakland, the way we framed our issue originally was field-focused and not human-centered. Through the process of HCD, we changed our problem to focus more on students and the broader education community. We moved from asking ‘what should we do?’ as a reaction to the problem to building a shared understanding of the issue. As a result, we re-framed the issue: OUSD historically lacks a trusted financial system, inclusive of student outcomes, and therefore cannot effectively serve the Oakland education community (people/consumers/beneficiaries).”  

The HCD principle intentionally moves a problem from its focus on our challenges and assumptions e.g. “We need to convince more students to vote,” to a focus on the people whose problems we are trying to solve e.g. Students want to understand their roles and responsibilities as voters.”  

2.    Develops a team’s common understanding of the problem and approach to the challenge.

“With the whole team, we led the process starting with the mapping exercise, putting the problem in the middle, and mapping all the related issues. We also used the brainstorming exercise – which actually ended up really narrowing the problem and framing it more clearly."

3.    Digs deeply into empathy stage  –  before acting – to evolve a recognized expertise.

“Working through the HCD process, we moved away from being very action focused, which was definitely a big change. Previously, conversations would start with, ‘what are we going to do?’ Instead, through HCD, we took a step back – and folks became comfortable with just being empathetic – that it was actually good for us to stay in that space. We don’t have to take action right now."

"Instead our staff wanted to learn more. They wanted to figure out whom they could talk to? Who could they learn more from? They really wanted to go out and talk to all the relevant people – district leaders, financial staff, and principals for example – in the empathy stage. We also invited in peers who had been following the issue closely to help our team understand the underlying issues more deeply.”

4.    Creates a new role for an organization.

“We ended up staying in the empathy stage – building knowledge and information rather than being reactionary. As a result, our staff filled in gaps in their expertise and became super informed and engaged. So, in a different way, we are now in a better position to be able to help the system overall."

"We can give other funders knowledge and information. We are more confident to engage in complex problems (like financial sustainability), that before we were hesitant to address. We can participate in conversations with the district in a more informed and nuanced way. We start from a place of empathy and fact. Even our own board is comfortable with this learning stage. This is important for us - not feel compelled to act but rather listen.” 

5.    Engages staff in a different way.

“It was helpful to let everyone together formulate ‘how do I see the problem.’ And it was particularly good that we did that together in an interactive format, otherwise, it would just be our regular team meeting format of sharing out with quick conversation. Since our original meeting, there have been updates and a continuous cycle of empathy and knowledge building. We’d see integrating HCD into a formal team dynamic where there’s an opportunity for each person to participate.”

“We are also starting to think about how to weave HCD into our strategic planning process. We can be better about getting feedback. This was really a quick, tangible way to deal with something that affected our whole team. Truly a particularly good approach when you have to respond to an issue.”

For more information on HCD, you can check out our original article about the workshop.

Melissa Daar Carvajal