Using Design Thinking to innovate and problem solve

A practical guide for leaders of volunteers

To complement our BiteSize mini series on design thinking, Amie Frayne, Volunteer Development Manager at The Brain Tumour Charity, has shared a practical guide to design thinking, for leaders of volunteers.

Amie explains why she developed this, in the guide:

In my experience as a volunteer manager, it can sometimes be challenging to get buy-in across my organisation, when it comes to involving volunteers in new and innovative ways. When planning for the future or for an upcoming project, including volunteers to maximise impact often isn’t at the forefront of my colleague’s minds.

This was perfectly highlighted when a couple of weeks ago, our corporate team carried out a needs analysis: they asked each team to come up with ways that our corporate partners could support them, be it pro-bono work, or gifts in kind. Teams came up with a long list of skills they were looking for and projects that would benefit from expertise. I had carried out a similar exercise for volunteering a few months previously, with little success, and yet looking down the list, a large proportion of the opportunities could have easily been filled by volunteers.

This is not to dismiss the valuable contribution that corporate partners might bring to The Charity, but it seems there is something about the word ‘volunteer’ that stops people coming up with new, potentially valuable ways for people to donate their time and skills. So how can we get people thinking differently?

This was exactly the conversation I was having with a colleague a few weeks ago, who suggest I look into Design Thinking. While in no way a new idea, it was new to me – so I went away and did my research (there’s some useful content in this podcast, if you’re interested).

So what is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a process for creative problem solving. At its core, it’s a human-centred. It focuses on and seeks to understand the people who are involved, redefining problems and identifying new solutions – that might not have been initially obvious. The idea is that using a Design Thinking approach will lead to better products, services or processes.

I decided to try this approach with The Charity’s regional fundraising team, to identify new opportunities for volunteers, to maximise the teams’ impact, while also providing a great experience for those donating their time. Community volunteers have always played a vital role for The Charity, raising awareness, attending fundraising events, giving talks and managing collection tins. But as this team has developed over time, so too has developed lots of untapped potential for volunteering.

Before running the session, I felt uncertain about how it would be received. But what I quickly found was that Design Thinking allowed team members to feel heard, their concerns understood. By taking a collaborative approach to problem solving, participants were bought into the process and were excited about the potential solutions. We came away with three distinct ideas about how volunteers might support the regional team in future, and with an action plan to begin making this a reality. The next step? To test these ideas with volunteers.

Attached is a quick guide to running a Design Thinking workshop. There are plenty of different activities you could do to achieve the same outcome – but I hope it’s a helpful starting point.

If I could give one piece of advice to anyone thinking of facilitating a session, it would be this: let go of what you think are great ideas. Although with your volunteer manager’s hat on, you might see lots of opportunities, bringing these to the table goes against the principles of Design Thinking. Ideas should come from within the room, as a result of going through the problem solving process. As a facilitator it can be hard to begin a session not knowing the direction it might take – but I promise it’s worth it for the outcome.

Amie would like to hear how you get on! Please let her know in the comments below.

Download Amie’s Design Thinking workshop

I didn’t expect to learn this about influencing change

It’s really important to me that the value of volunteers is recognised across
The Brain Tumour Charity, and that both volunteers and the staff who support them have a great experience.

Within my relatively short time in post, I’ve learnt that positive change often requires support for volunteer engagement across teams and at all levels. So when I spotted an email about an upcoming AVM event focusing on ‘successfully influencing change’, it got my attention.

At the event we heard from Charlotte Witteridge, Head of Volunteering at The Myton Hospices and Clare Burgess, CEO of Surrey Coalition of Disabled People. Both shared the way they had wielded influence in order to embed volunteering more deeply in the culture of their organisations.

For them, building a case for support and thinking strategically about the changes that were needed was really important. But even more crucial was their ability to bring people along on that journey. Below I’ve parceled their advice on doing just that into three top tips:

  1. Be reliable and interested
  2. Focus on the things you can change
  3. Know your allies

1. Be reliable and interested

1Doing what you say you’ll do (which includes saying no), and making a point to learn something new outside of your work remit each day, will engender trust among key stakeholders. By building your personal brand, people are more likely to believe in your ideas and in your ability to make those ideas a success.

2. Focus on the things you can change

Don’t spend time focusing on your ‘circle of concern’ – the things which challenge you but you can’t do anything about. Instead, think proactively about your ‘circle of influence’. If you do this you’ll become more effective at making change and increase what you’re able to influence.

3. Know your allies

Work out who it is you need to influence, and how you can get on their radar. This isn’t always about targeting those who hold important job titles. By building strong connections across and outside of your organisation you may identify people who can break down a barrier for you.

To get decision-makers on side, think about how each person needs information delivered to them. Some people are most interested in facts, some finances and some in stories.

I came away from the event with lots to think about, some action points and overall feeling more confident about influencing within my organisation. But having had a bit of time to reflect, my main learning from the day was perhaps a more surprising one.

I didn’t expect to learn this

I know that I’m not alone in finding conferences and events like these a daunting prospect. Part of the reason, I think, is that many of us feel that we have little of value to share. Day-to-day, we’re not doing anything radical or out of the ordinary.

We (volunteer managers) are quick to be self-critical and to focus on the areas that aren’t going right, but I learnt something valuable from everyone I spoke to at the event. During group discussions, people shared lessons learnt through experience – lessons that will undoubtedly save others time and heartache in the future.

My key takeaway

By sharing what your organisation is doing well at events like these, it encourages others to take small steps to improve their practice, which will in turn improve the experience for volunteers in their organisation. And our willingness to speak about these positive things, with colleagues, with other volunteer managers, or with potential volunteers, will make us better influencers too.

Most of the positive, proactive changes that you’ll make during your time as a volunteer manager will not be brand new concepts, but that doesn’t make them uninteresting, or less valid. What you see as your bread and butter, the areas where your organisation is succeeding, are probably the very same areas that others are struggling to crack.

We should shout about these positive things more. I know I certainly will.


Amie is the Volunteer Development Manager for The Brain Tumour Charity.

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