19 April 2013

An effective tool for NPOs to solve issues in a sustainable way

The term ‘human-centered design’ (HCD) is in itself not new. It has been applied in the business-world for years now in order to more effectively meet the demands and expectations of customers. Consequently, the question that arises is: why not apply the same toolkit for challenges that NPOs face? Before going into the benefits of HCD for NPOs, let us first get a clear picture of what is meant by this term. HCD is the process in which the needs and behavior of people are placed as the starting point of problem-solving. It is thereby the opposite of function-focused design (FFD), which focuses mainly on the process itself and how it can be done as quickly and most cost-efficient as possible. Placing people at the center of solutions results in a better understanding of what people truly need and by what they are actually helped the most. Looking at people’s needs in this way is thereby done through a ‘desirability lens’.

For an NPO that is trying to improve the quality of people’s lives, the desirability lens constitutes a crucial starting point for any project that an NPO would like to set up. This is also illustrated in the figure below. Ultimately it will also render the most satisfactory solution, since the NPO will have a detailed and thorough understanding of what actually benefits the people they target the most. Once an NPO has a clear picture of people’s needs, HCD shifts to the areas of ‘feasibility’ and ‘viability’. That is to say, the NPO needs to assess if its solution is technically and organizationally feasible and simultaneously financially viable. If all of these three components prove doable, the NPO can start taking concrete actions. In sum, HCD provides NPOs with an efficient toolkit that will generate effective solutions for people’s challenges. 

For example, if an NPO had to find solutions for people that needed to know ‘how to fish’, acquiring inputs from the locals, who have better knowledge on the particular environment would be critical for success. It could also play an important role in motivating people to join the project. In this case, the NPOs can kill two birds with one stone, involving the victims directly in projects and simultaneously providing jobs and sustainable income for the participants. This could have been implemented easily and without large donations, so hopefully we will see more of these kinds of NPO projects in the future.

I believe that this sustainable method of thinking can very be helpful for NPOs that often rely too much on donation only. After the 2011 tsunami in Japan for example, we have witnessed the creation of many NPOs. Looking back, these NPOs could have strongly benefited from the HCD toolkit by creating more sustainable solution models. For example, many victims were reallocated to temporary houses after the earthquake and were lacking basic food. Fortunately a couple of organizations started providing them with basic food supplies and organized fund-raising events to support these projects. However, after more than 2 years, less and less people started showing up at these events, because of what is called ‘donors fatigue’ and the victims suddenly received less supplies. What could have been done in order to prevent this issue, is that the NPOs could have involved the people more into designing a sustainable project.