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