Innovating Education Philanthropy with Design

Andrew Kaufteil (@akaufteil) is director of engagement at Cooper.

Jim & Cameron Blueprint (1)I worked in education philanthropy for more than ten years. I know from experience that in philanthropy, you are often faced with gnarly problems to solve. I’d like to recommend a new approach for you consider: design thinking.

This post will introduce you to design thinking—not necessarily teach the fundamentals and mechanics of design. So, first, what is design thinking?

Design thinking is a high-impact, human-centered approach to problem solving and strategy. Many people associate the word “design” with fashion design, interior design or graphic design. Some hear “UX (or user experience) design” and think, “That’s for computer engineers, not me.” While aesthetics and technology are critical elements of design, they are just two parts of design thinking’s more dynamic and complex equation.

The Design Process

Design is distinguished from other business strategy methodologies by its human-centered framework. It strives to enhance existing products and services or create new ones in a way that reflects the goals, motivations and behaviors of target users.

Every design project looks different from the last. I now work as director of engagement at Cooper, a global design and strategy firm, and our process typically includes some or all of these steps:

  • Understand business goals—for instance, to scale a project, to make profit, to increase unrestricted giving, etc.
  • Identify and conduct interviews with target constituents.
  • Synthesize interviews into personas.
  • Craft real world scenarios to make sure we understand our personas’ contexts.
  • Design a product or service with the persona in mind.
  • Prototype, test, iterate and validate the design.

Shifts in the Higher Ed Realm

It was my longtime dream to work as a higher education administrator. (I invite you to reference my senior year yearbook profile for proof.) After working in the sector for a long time, though, I started observing some disappointing trends. In recent years, I heard stories among colleagues at many universities that important decisions were being made based on the “HIPPO” (highest paid person’s opinion) rather than data. I also heard that politics, hierarchy and formality were inhibiting creativity and innovation. Tactics were often prioritized over strategies; “How?” was being asked much more than “Why?”

In the realm of philanthropy, I kept hearing people say they wanted to uncover what makes their alumni tick. Or millennials. Or baby boomers. I heard people talk about how impact investing was competing with philanthropy. And about the rise of crowdfunding. I also heard a lot about how to retain staff.

At the same time, I noticed the educational philanthropy landscape was changing. Colleges were shuttering and consolidating. Online degree, executive education and extension programs were proliferating, even among prestigious institutions. Innovative B-corps and nonprofits with earned revenue models were popping up, offering mission-based learning. I knew people who turned down Ivy League degree programs for fellowships at Singularity University or incubator programs.

Amid all this, annual giving rates were plummeting.


To solve these challenges in higher education philanthropy, we typically use some reliable tools: industry reports, benchmarking and surveys, as well as focus groups and interviews with engaged donors. These approaches will no doubt sound familiar to people reading this post. The issue with these is that they tend to lead to predictable solutions.

Fortunately, there’s another way to solve problems. Education and philanthropy are both industries in the midst of change; they are ripe for innovation. Design thinking can help these industries because education and philanthropy are human-centered. It can help you uncover what motivates your donors and alumni at their core.

Since transitioning to a design thinking agency, I see exciting possibilities for education and philanthropy. I’m trained in cultural anthropology and I often refer to our work as “corporate anthropology.” Our data derives from qualitative behavioral research methods: one-on-one interviews and observing people in their natural habitats. We can make tangible, high-impact changes if we identify and interview key constituents with fresh eyes, synthesize the information we glean and design holistic programs tailored to their goals, motivations and behaviors. These constituents could be young alumni, donors, board members, staff members—the list goes on.

Design Thinking in Practice

To see how design thinking works, test the approach with a small project, such as engaging alumni in a new region. Here’s an example.

  1. Set goals. First, understand your business objectives for your unit(s). For example, say you’re a leadership annual giving department and your business objective is to acquire new leadership donors. You learned through data analysis that you have a large number of highly rated non-donor alumni in the Denver area.
  2. Conduct interviews. From there, identify 10 to 15 non-donor alumni you don’t know, with high capacity. Interview them one-on-one with open-ended questions about their goals, motivations and behaviors. Ask them about their experience when they were a student, what their life is like now and why they would want to stay connected to their alma mater. One person should interview and one person should take notes.
  3. Synthesize the information. After all the interviews are complete, synthesize the information to identify trends. Remember, you aren’t trying to figure out what activities they want. You are trying to discover why they want them. In particular, try to identify what value your alumni seek from their alma mater.
  4. Craft scenarios. From this synthesis, model a persona or personas that encapsulate the characteristics of alumni in Denver. In this case, you might have found that alumni in Denver like family-oriented, outdoor activities, quality time with faculty and opportunities for career networking.
  5. Design a program. Use the personas to design a small event based on the data you found, perhaps a family-friendly hike led by a faculty member where you follow up afterwards with employment and contact information.
  6. Test and reflect. Assess and learn from the event. Did it engage more alumni in a meaningful way?

Get Started with Design Thinking

Here are some ideas to bring design thinking to your team.

  • Assign yourself or select staff members—preferably ones with technology skills—to learn about design thinking and UX design. Offer them resources like these to self-teach or take workshops.
  • Empower them to evangelize about design within your organization.
  • Recruit a designer to join your board of directors. Hire a UX designer or someone with a design background to join your team.
  • Hire a design agency like Cooper to lead a training, or facilitate a retreat or to work on an important project.
  • Find an internal executive sponsor to champion design initiatives within your organization.

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