Stuck? Try problem-solving like a designer

The idea

People first, ideas second. Might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many of us forget this – even in the social good world.

This idea of empathy is the key driver behind design thinking, a creative approach to problem-solving that’s gained buzz in recent years thanks to the mammoth design and innovation consulting firm IDEO.

But it’s not just the territory of big companies. Brooklyn-based The Design Gym is taking design thinking and putting it in the hands of the community. Through facilitation and storytelling workshops, giant hackathons, and their Weekend Workout, (which attempts to solve a problem from a real organization or company)  their belief is that anyone can be innovative – if you just exercise that muscle.

“There are lots of organizations that don’t talk to customers. That part of what we’re doing isn’t groundbreaking, it’s just showing them a new approach. You get so stuck in management and growth and systems and all of a sudden you lose touch with those people who can provide you very simple solutions,” co-founder Jason Wisdom says.

Design thinking in action

A typical Weekend Workout works like this: You come in on Friday night for a crash course on design thinking complete with beers and improv exercises. On Saturday, you go through the entire process on a problem that everyone can relate to, like park services or airline issues, using the 5 phases: learning from all the people who touch this problem in someway, making sense of what you learned, generating solutions from those learnings, experimenting or testing those solutions (many failing), and telling the story of what you learned. When Sunday comes around, you’re challenged to use that process again on a real client.

mIles

Kelly presenting the user journey her team created for miLES.

There’s been seven workouts so far, with past clients including the Acumen FundMakeshift Magazine, HolsteeThe Future Project, and Made in the Lower East Side (miLES).

With miLES, for example, students were asked to find a way for artists, teachers, and more to utilize the 220+ vacant storefronts in the Lower East Side, and also keep the landlords who wanted to rent them to higher paying customers (i.e. bar and restaurant owners) happy. They came up with pop up shops. And not only that, but a central hub of carts where people could find signage, seats, tables, and more so they could set up and take down their store with ease.

A few of the clients from the Weekend Workout, such as Makeshift and Holstee, took on students after it was over to help put their ideas in action. That’s one of the big goals of Design Gym: develop relationships with companies and organizations so the students can gain both experience and exposure.

“They’ve been our biggest evangelists in terms of helping us find new opportunities, “ Jason says. “And we support them getting jobs or consulting gigs, or give personal coaching around their careers. As long as people know you’re absolutely committed to their success, they’ll bend over backwards to help you as well.”

Tips for replicating the idea

Jason and his team would love to first get The Design Gym firmly planted in NYC, then expand to other places.

But if the idea of a Weekend Workout makes you want to immediately start to do the heavy (or light) lifting of bringing one where you live, here are his tips on how to make it successful:

1. Find a point of focus.

Sit with the organization or company beforehand and tease out the problem. “We want the problem to be big enough to satisfy the organization and do something significant, but small enough that it can be implemented,” he says. Things like, “What’s the future of our organization look like?” is way too wide for a short timeframe, narrow down those problems or opportunities.

2. Tap into different communities and locations.

Bounce around to different spaces. Or if you can’t do that, partner with a space that can bring in diverse clients. Design Gym frequently hosts their classes at the Brooklyn Brainery, an eclectic, community-driven education space where you can find classes on everything from how to run a marathon to making marbled papers to being a connector.

“One of our primary drivers is to continually enforce that diverse community. Because the solutions are so much more interesting due to the communities diverse backgrounds and it’s fun to connect with people who would never get  to be around each other otherwise,” Jason says.

3. Make everything in the space fair game.

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A team, client (Holstee) and community celebrating after a fun-filled and exhausting weekend.

During the prototyping phase, when students are experimenting with ideas to see if they’ll work, encourage them to use whatever is front of them. At the Brainery, students will often use stuff from the classrooms: frying pans, duct tape, 2×4’s, etc. “The more props you can show us, the better off it is. We’ve had students present back in haikus and built structures, also some teams presented through brilliant songs,” Jason says.

4. Embrace your students’ inner geek

Anyone can attend the Weekend Workout and everyone who does is there for one reason: to learn new things. While most students tend to be in their late 20’s to early 40’s, their backgrounds run the gamut from novelists to 5th grade science teachers to product leads at Google.

“With the problems we’re working on being so diverse, people start to feel this applies to them, whether they’re in healthcare or a tech startup or construction,” Jason says. “What they have in common is that they’re geeky people.”

5. Don’t be a helicopter instructor.

The less you do, the better off your students are. “We found if do a really good job at the explanation and creating structure, and leave them alone, the better off they are,” Jason says. “Allowing them to go through and fail a little bit and do things wrong and learn from that is an important part of the process. And it takes us standing back a little bit for that to be able to happen.”

Another tip: Don’t try to force groups based on personalities you think might work well together. Whether you group people together or randomize it, the results ware usually the same.

6. Show your appreciation.

“Everybody has busy lives in this city. So we want to thank people for deciding that out of all the places they could possibly be, they’re spending time with us,” says Jason. They’ve shown their gratitude by giving students a bag with a Moleskine notebook, bottle of wine, and handwritten thank you card.

7. Empower.

Design Gym just launched a train-the-trainer program, where they have students come back from previous weekends and learn the skills necessary to become a really strong facilitator. Finding them long-term engagements with organizations or companies is another priority, and they’re toying with creating a consulting firm run by students.

8. Create continual opportunities for community. 

They’ve hosted happy hours, rotating potlucks, and more. “Our big epiphany was our first happy hour. We had 23 students in the class, and 21 came out to happy hour and said they wanted to continue to be involved in whatever it is we’re doing,” Jason says. “That to me was such validation we’re doing something right. And in the end, they become close friends.”

Are you an organization in the NYC area that could use some creative problem-solving at a Weekend Workout? Or want to implement a similar project where you live? Get in touch with Jason: jason@thedesigngym.com.

If you’re in the NYC area and want to participate, the next Weekend Workout will be May 31-June 2.

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What makes YOU weird? The “Own It” campaign wants to know

At NYC’s Lab School for Collaborative Studies, you‘ll find tables for group work, encouraging notes on lockers, and students openly admitting their dreams, failures, and what makes them unique. Here’s how the high school is celebrating vulnerability in their hallways and beyond—and combating bullying while they’re at it.

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The idea

Senior Lena Jacobs owns that she can ride a unicycle. After years of trying to hide his disability, her classmate Bryan Stromer owns that he has cerebral palsy. Tim Shriver, the school’s in-house Dream Director whose job it is to challenge and support students in putting their dreams into action, owns that he has his heads in the clouds.

In February this year, the three of them helped kick off “Own It,” a campaign at Lab to encourage students and staff to embrace individuality and end bullying. Walk down the school’s hallways and at every turn you’ll find questions on the wall such as: What makes you weird? What’s your wildest dream? What’s your greatest failure? What makes you you?

“Have you ever been in a classroom and the teachers would ask you what animal you’d be and why? You’d always hear people say a lion, tiger, or some other really strong animal. I remember I once heard this girl say she’d be a pig because she could roll around in the mud and and not care what people think of her. That’s such a positive thing; why can’t we all do this?” Bryan says. “ ‘Own It’ is a nicer way of saying be a pig.”

How it came together

At the end of the fall, the idea for “Own It” starting taking shape. With Lab being a relatively quirky school (students are asked on a daily basis to plot their feelings on a mood meter, for example), Tim would talk with students and Future Project Fellows about how to create a shared identity. At the same time, Bryan and Lena started thinking about how it could tie in with their work with the Stand Up to Bullying club, which Bryan co-founded three years ago.

“We knew we had an idea, and everyone was excited about it, but we weren’t sure how we were going to engage people around why this actually matters,” Tim says.

So they got to work and within a few months had planned a high energy, interactive campaign launch event for February. There were poets and emcees, videos, music, and art —and lots of momentum that continued after it ended.

“People say ‘own it’ now like it’s part of their vocabulary,” Bryan says. If you get something wrong in math class, instead of everyone laughing, people will say, ‘Own it!’ It’s a nice way to embrace mistakes and embarrassment.”


Tips for replicating the idea

A big part of “Own It” is spreading the idea to not only other NYC schools—three recently met with the Chancellor of NYC’s Department of Education—but beyond.

Whether you’re from a suburban or urban area, or attend a large or small school, here are their tips on how to make it happen where you live:

1. Keep it real with student leadership.

While it’s definitely a bonus to have Tim providing guidance, ultimately the campaign is student-created and student-led.

“At end of the day, it’s not a club. It’s something that exists within the entire school and affects everyone. It raises the spirits of the entire population,” Lena says. “We want it to stay in the student vibe.”

2. Grow a support network.

Aside from having a staff member they could trust, engaging other students kept them from getting stuck.

“You’re your own worst enemy. If you don’t have someone to keep pushing you to move forward, then sometimes you can end up holding yourself back,” Bryan says. “There are probably 20 of us who are equally invested in this idea and concept. If any of us are having doubts, we look to the support of peers.”

3. Create a catchy brand.

“Own it” is just a fun thing to say. And to create even more excitement, they pasted black and white flyers of the questions all over the hallways to create a buzz before the launch, keeping an element of surprise.

3. Toss out the notion of a standard school assembly.

Instead of an assembly, they called it a campaign launch and made it engaging from every angle. They showed a video Lena made of the teachers disclosing little-known facts about themselves. Poets read in the aisles. The audience participated talk show-style, complete with shouts and claps. Macklemore’s “Same Love” provided the soundtrack.

4. Create continual opportunities for people to own it.

At the launch, students were asked to sign a pledge. The pledge is now up in the hallways, along with index cards they filled out during the event of what they owned: fear of being locked in a coffin, love of Bugs Bunny, and dreams of traveling the world, among others. They even update their Instagram account daily.

“That’s been really cool because people have started following Instagram, and they look forward to it. I’ve been asked by a couple of people who are not directly involved with ‘Own It’ if they can be on it,” Lena says. “Even if we’re touching only one or two other people, it’s an impact we’re making and it’s exciting.”

5. Own your commitment to it.

The campaign had a rocky beginning at first, as people didn’t understand what the group was trying to do. But they persisted.

“Keep going forward and making progress no matter how small it is. It might seem really challenging to start, but once you figure out the idea, keep moving,” Bryan says.

Lena and Bryan may be heading off to college next year, but the hope is that “Own It” will live on. For them, being part of the campaign has helped them strengthen their friendship and connect with others they might not have ever known they had something in common with. For Tim, it’s confirmed something he’s had a suspicion about all along.

“The people who can say where they are most vulnerable are the ones who rock this world. If you look at history, you see it. You look at this school, you see it,” he says. “This is the opportunity we have. Not only to say you can stop bullying, but this is the way to make you the most powerful person you can possibly be.”

Want to keep up to date with the campaign? Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspired to bring “Own It” to your school? Email nycownit@gmail.com.

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Try this! Bring TEDx to under-resourced communities

The idea

Over the past few years, TED talks have become a popular way of sharing knowledge on pretty much anything. From robot technology to guerrilla gardening, the topics tackled by TED speakers have a limitless breadth, and the events are known to pack auditoriums and concert halls across the world.

But what about smaller, isolated communities who don’t have access to this bottomless pit of information, whether it be in person or via TED’s online video archive?

They create their own version.

TEDx Kliptown participants outside of the local venue.

TEDx Kliptown participants outside of the event’s first venue.

Both Kelo Kubu and Kevin Otieno have championed these new kinds of TEDx talks in two African villages. Kubu used a “TEDx in a Box”—an all-in-one kit of equipment needed to put on a talk—to hold Kliptown, South Africa’s first talk in 2011 and Otieno used the aid of other veteran TEDx organizers to get TEDx Kibera (one of Kenya’s largest slums) off the ground in 2009.

“It’s important to share [TED talks] with other impoverished communities, since the majority of the people in these communities have lost hope in life,” says Otieno. “We’ve already seen the small impact made in Kibera. People can learn, be encouraged, be motivated and be inspired to think big and differently. And they didn’t have that before.”

While their events both followed a similar structure of a regular TEDx talk, both Kubu and Otieno worked hard to mold the events into something the locals would want to attend, if not continue on their own. From promoting a simplistic, bare-bones image—as to not intimidate the largely impoverished attendees—to knowing what snacks to bring, the two successfully piqued the interest and imaginations of their specific communities by finding common ground.

Why you might like to try this

  • Sparks local and global idea-sharing.  In Kliptown, Thulani Madondo, the leader of South Africa’s One Laptop Per Child branch spoke about the program’s efforts to bring new technology to remote communities and classrooms. In response, local children in the audience who had received laptops through this program recorded their own TEDx discussion on how they use it. “What was interesting to me was the ease at which the community caught on to the idea of TEDx and wanted to make their own,” says Kubu. “And to see both the creator of the laptop program and the children who received it side by side brought it full circle.”
  • Empowers community. Otieno says that TEDx Kibera has changed people’s perceptions on who can teach. “They realize that despite their socioeconomic status they are not different. They can’t choose where they are born but they can choose what they want to be.” Since TEDx became a reoccurring presence in Kibera four years ago, new businesses led by event attendees have popped up across the sprawling slum.
  • Provides insight on universal technologies. The TEDx in a Box kit contains tablets and smart phones that can be plugged into projectors to screen TEDx talks. Kubu says that bringing this usually foreign technology to small communities is a huge step in global education, especially for youth. “Kids catch onto new technology faster than adults. It doesn’t matter if they are in a rural community or in New York City. With just a simple tablet or smart phone in a classroom, children can become global citizens,” says Kubu. “This is the future of education.”


Gomba, a local artist, speaks about art, empowerment and life in Kibera at the TEDx Kibera event.
 

How you can replicate it

While each area‘s TEDx events should be uniquely crafted to make sense in their community, Kubu and Otieno agree that the idea is meant to be universal.  If you’d like to host a TEDx in your small community, or know of one that could benefit from a TEDx event, consider these tips from Kubu.

  • Do your homework on the location.  Community members will only be interested in the talk if the topics relate to real issues and ideas that are relevant to their society. For example, in Kibera, Otieno invited the head of a local art studio to speak, encouraging listeners to contribute to the space. “To make it work, you have to know something about the community. You have to know what their needs are and how it can benefit them,” says Kubu. “It has to make sense.”
  • Find the right messenger. Kubu says that, if you aren’t from the area, it’s key to connect with a community leader to spread the word about the event. People feel more comfortable hearing about a new idea when it comes from a familiar source.
  • Make the audience comfortable Be sure to create a welcoming atmosphere for attendees. If they’re used to sitting on the floor, don’t bring chairs. If social events in their community usually involve snacks, make sure you bring the right ones.
  • Make cost a non-issue. “It’s important to show the community that putting on a event doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,” she says. “You can make money a barrier, and we don’t want that.  We want people to see that it’s easy and can be something they would have done on any other day.”
  • Provide tools to keep it going. Kubu left a stack of TED DVDs at Kilptown’s library—one of the few places in town with electricity and a DVD player. Now, locals visit the library weekly for an arranged viewing of a talk.

“Ideally, I’d like to see Kliptown put on their own TEDx talk,” she says. “But all we can do is start the idea. The rest is in their hands.”

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Interested in curating a small-scale TEDx talk? Contact Kelo Kubu at Kelo.Kubu@gmail.com or Kevin Otieno at otieno_rebel@yahoo.com. 

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Try this! Snowball fight for charity

The idea

What kid doesn’t love a snow day? Of course it’s a day off school, but, more importantly, waking up to a world that has been transformed by a fresh layer of snow adds a bit of magic and wonder to a child’s life.

On January 12 of this year, the city of Seattle was treated to an epic, fun-filled Snow Day. But this event was specifically designed for adults.

It started with a snow fort and castle-building competition, which later became the setting for the the world’s largest snowball fight. 6,000 people joined in, and a new Guinness world record was set. The day ended with a pub crawl that allowed community members to warm up, as well as make new friends.

The event was the brainchild of Neil Bergquist, who managed to pull of the impressive feat while also serving as the Director of SURF Incubator, a community-supported network of digital startups. Neil relied on his own entrepreneurial skills, and the support of his network of friends and contacts, to turn Snow Day into a reality.

“I wanted to do something disruptive. Snow Day was an opportunity for the city to come together and showcase everything we love about the Northwest,” he says.

The event was a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Clubs of King County. In addition to raising an impressive $50,000, it also helped participants connect with the youth organization’s mission to inspire and enable all young people to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, and caring citizens.

Why you might like to try this

  • Creates a meaningful experience, while raising money. “Our mission was to raise money for kids by helping people remember what it’s like to be one,” Neil says. Snow Day went beyond the traditional charity auction or dinner, and provided a memorable, shared experience for Seattleites.
  • Shines a spotlight on the beneficiary’s work and mission. There’s no doubt the Boys and Girls Clubs of King County got more than money out of the event. Neil is proud of the fact that the event garnered global media attention, and created positive buzz for the nonprofit. It helped bring attention to the Boys and Girls Clubs’ other fundraising efforts, as well as generated fresh interest amongst potential volunteers. As Neil says, “The publicity they received was hard to put a dollar value on.”
  • Prioritizes fun and community. Neil recognizes the powerful community-building effect of something as iconic as a snow day. “Snow days are a time where the world shuts down. The stresses of our daily life come to a close, and people just focus on the here and now. And on each other.”

SnowDay

SnowDay2

How you can replicate it

While Seattle’s Snow Day was the first of its kind, Neil says he can imagine similar events happening all over the world. He says the spirit of Snow Day is something everyone can relate to, and provides a healthy way to bring communities together.

If you’d like to bring a Snow Day to your community, consider these lessons from Neil and his team. Remember that Neil started this without any official institutional backing. He does have entrepreneurial skills, a pretty high risk tolerance, and a great network of supporters, but he says there’s no reason others can’t achieve the same kind of success.

  • Think big. A Snow Day that attracted 100 people wouldn’t have made nearly the impact that this 6,000-person exercise in “managed chaos” (Neil’s words) had. When the team realized they had the potential to break a world record, they knew they had to pull out all the stops.
  • Get your ducks in a row. Neil refers to the date and the venue as the “anchor pieces,” around which everything else needs to work, so deal with those first. He recommends securing an iconic venue, like the Seattle Center, as a backdrop. For a risky endeavour like Snow Day, you need to make sure you’re properly insured. Do your research. As Neil says, “You don’t just call up Allstate and say, ‘Hey, we’re having the world’s largest snowball fight.’”
  • Make your own high-quality snow. Neil says if he organizes another Snow Day, he won’t bring in 160,000 pounds of snow in 34 dump trucks like he did this year. Instead, he’d investigate the several ways to create snow on site.
  • Do your homework. Neil and his team are now experts on snow. They read studies on the dangers of snowball fights (they made sure goggles were available at the event after learning that eye lacerations are the number one cause of injuries during snowball fights). They conducted snow-quality tests in the Cascade mountains, and did scenario planning (how would various weather conditions affect the event?). They took the details seriously.
  • Leverage every resource you can. Neil relied on the time and skills of his committed team of friends. He made use of personal connections to convince 36 corporate sponsors to get on board with an unprecedented, and, frankly, rather risky, endeavor. The team used their personal networks to blow up social media, eventually selling out the event a week in advance. They got a radio partner on board, and benefited from the free promotion. Neil believes creating mutually beneficial relationships was the key to getting the promotion he needed.
  • Build a strong brand. Neil managed to get the “Snow.co” domain and the @SnowDay twitter handle, which he says added to the legitimacy of the event from the get go.
  • Be prepared for a lot of work. Everyone on Neil’s team had a full-time job, in addition to their Snow Day responsibilities. Neil reports, “There was a team of six of us that were working all the time. I probably put in 80 hours per week for the five or six weeks leading up to the event. I loved the idea, and I wanted to make it happen.”

A month before the event, with 4,000 tickets sold, the Snow Day team still didn’t know how they were going to transport the 160,000 pounds of snow needed.

“The difficult part is maintaining the confidence that you’re going to find a way,” Neil finally says. “If you have a vision, you’re going to give everything it takes to deliver on that vision, even though you don’t always have all the answers.”


Want to plan a Snow Day in your own community? Reach out to Neil Bergquist for information and advice: neil@snow.co.

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Idea File: One City’s Guide to Giving

Year-end appeals may have ended, but it’s never too late to start planning for the next go-around.

The idea

In December, you most likely received a slew of emails from nonprofits near and far asking you to continue their support. If you’re anything like me, you probably felt overwhelmed.

Here in Portland, OR one alternative newspaper is trying to make shuffling through the noise of year-end giving easier. Willamette Week’s (WW) annual Give!Guide features 110 nonprofits in eight different categories from animals to youth to give your cash to at the end of the year.

It’s a win-win: Local organizations receive money to support all the awesome work they do, and you get incentives ranging from a free cup of Stumptown coffee to oh yes, an ice cream party for 200 of your closest friends at the best scoop in town.

While the guide is open to anyone to donate, the focus is on the 35 and under crowd.

“We have the least amount of money and most view philanthropy as something you do when you’re older or only if you’re wealthy,” says 27-year-old Nick Johnson, Give!Guide’s Executive Director. “We want to break through that barrier and make it clear to people that you are philanthropist even if you give $10.”

Recently completing its 9th year, Give!Guide has raised over seven million dollars in total, with nearly two million this past year alone. Complemented by the Skidmore Prize, which highlights four young nonprofit rockstars, and a volunteer guide one month later, WW is tapping into one of the many reasons why Portland is quickly becoming one of top cities in the U.S. to make a tangible difference.

“I can go through the list and name which groups from my life in Portland have affected and shaped me,” Nick says. “Anybody who lives here, even if they just moved, can’t avoid being influenced by one of them.”

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Makes giving easy. Instead of going to multiple websites or writing numerous checks, all the nonprofits are there on one web page for you to choose from. Nick has found that the average donor will give to three nonprofits at once.
  • Raises awareness of local nonprofits, especially smaller ones. While larger nonprofits are included, it’s the smaller nonprofits that seem to benefit the most. “We bring them in new people, they get the fundraising experience and connect with other nonprofits,” Nick says.
  • Kickstarts philanthropy in the young. The 65 and older group, which has traditionally been the biggest donor base, are increasingly less likely to increase donations. “We think that younger people need to begin stepping up,” Nick says.
  • Collective effort to help the sector as a whole. It can’t be denied that there’s power in numbers. “When you create a critical mass of 110 groups and all their marketing departments and volunteers and staff are promoting it, it becomes a bigger thing than if one group was doing their own Kickstarter thing,” Nick says.
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Give!Guide’s Executive Director Nick Johnson holding one of the lawn signs. (Photo via Willamette Week’s V.Kapoor.)

 

How you can replicate it

A version of the Give!Guide exists in some other places around the country, such as Colorado Springs, CO and Lexington, KY, but Nick would love to see the idea in even more cities. Already a handful of communities have reached out to WW for ideas.

If you’re thinking about doing something like this where you live, below are some tips from Nick on how to implement it. You don’t necessarily need newspaper backing; a group of nonprofits could easily create one.

Working with nonprofits

  • Choose the number or organizations based on capacity. Richard Meeker, the Willamette Week Publisher and Co-Owner, started the Give!Guide in 2004 with just 20 organizations, the number which has been increasing each year. Nick is now its only full-time employee, and feels 110 is a manageable number not only for him to be a dedicated resource for the organizations, but a way to keep the attention focused.
  • Have a selection committee that’s legitimate and has a wide reach in the nonprofit community. Last year,  WW’s publisher and accountant, staff from a local science museum and youth organization, and the former ED from the Nonprofit Association of Oregon chose which nonprofits appeared in the guide.
  • Include a variety of organizations. Have a balance of smaller and larger nonprofits (mammoth orgs are a good lure for the tiny ones), a range of categories, and fresh causes each year. “We want there to be some turnover so it doesn’t become a calcified thing and doesn’t shift,” says Nick, who tries to include 30% new orgs every year.
  • Encourage nonprofits to help you promote the guide. Ask them to push it on their social media channels, as well as in their community face-to-face. Give!Guide also ramps up the competitiveness by giving $500 to the nonprofits in each category who get the most individual donors under 35.
  • Pay attention to the small guys. Nick learned that nonprofits will have different expectations about what they want out of the Give!Guide. While the large orgs will usually not have a problem raising funds, the smaller ones might. So Nick put statistical reporting in place to make sure he was giving them equal attention. “If you want to manage a large group of nonprofits, you have to keep an eye on both the successes and the improvement areas,” he says. “I want these groups to walk away happy.”

Engaging the community

  • Provide incentives. Although Nick has found roughly 20% of people will opt out of receiving rewards such as discounted coupons  or a year-round show pass to local music venue or , he thinks it’s still a nice way to thank people and show appreciation. Working with businesses also helps their philanthropic image and brings in new customers, and on the flipside, introduces Give!Guide to an audience it may not have reached.
  • Consider the types of businesses you partner with. Be aware that nonprofits and businesses might have competing interests, and if the guide is part of a newspaper, keep the editorial separate.
  • Recognize local changemakers. The Skidmore Prize not only highlights the fact that many young people are involved with nonprofits, but helps the sector at large by keeping them motivated with a $4,000 prize. “If we can keep pushing them forward, that’s a huge asset for that organization and a huge asset for the city,” Nick says.
  • Be prepared for a slew of donations after the holidays. People will usually wait until the last minute to donate after they’re done with holiday shopping. This is an ideal time to encourage new donors.
  • Make donors feel they are a part of something. Whether it’s citizenship badge stickers or lawn signs, for example, having swag not only markets the guide, but helps people feel connected to a larger movement.

“People are bombarded so much. You can’t be passive,” Nick finally says. “That’s my biggest piece of advice.”

Inspired to create your own Give!Guide? Feel free to reach out to Nick Johnson for more advice: njohnson@wweek.com.

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Idea File: What do you want to do before you die?

The idea

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A piece of the wall in Yankton, South Dakota. (Photo by Sarah Mannes Homstad.)

Look around you. Chances are, there’s an unused space nearby. Maybe it’s the abandoned building by the train tracks. Or the empty lot next to your office. Whatever it is, it speaks to a bigger problem that many of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods have: lonely spaces that just sit there, desperate for human interaction.

Artist Candy Chang wants to change that. Her most recent project, Before I Die, helps transform these neglected areas into communal gathering spots for people to reflect on their lives and declare what’s most important to them. How? By writing on a giant chalkboard.

The hopes and dreams to date are humorous and somber, profound and silly:

Before I die I want to open my Museum of Chocolate
Before I die I want to walk on stilts
Before I die I want to have the courage to forgive my father
Before I die I want to help 10000000 people
Before I die I want to be mine
Before I die I want to eat a banana

The project was inspired by a friend Candy lost in New Orleans, which got her contemplating the fragility of our time here.

“Preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do. Thinking about death clarifies your life,” she says in a TED talk.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Encourages you to confront your mortality. Then makes you want to do something about it.
  • Exposes a shared vulnerability. You might be surprised to find out that your neighbors have the same hopes and dreams as you do.
  • Holds you accountable. Sure, the chalk will be erased in time but the mere act of writing might help you act on what you want to do.
  • Public beautification. Aside from the giant statue of Marilyn Monroe in Chicago, who doesn’t like public art?

How you can replicate it

The wall by Meridian Bridge, which connects South Dakota and Nebraska. (Photo by Sarah Mannes Homstad.)

So far, communities in 51 cities around the world from Oklahoma City to Beirut to Asunción have created their own Before I Die walls to be featured in an upcoming book.

But the project isn’t over, and Candy wants you to take this idea to where you live. With the help of her Civic Center colleagues, she’s created a toolkit for purchase to help you get started: stencils, chalk holders, and more. Can’t find the cash? Check out the free online guide that includes a sample letter of intention for government officials to help you avoid potential pitfalls.

We also reached out to architect Sarah Mannes Homstad who recently created a wall in Yankton, South Dakota from August-October this year with the help of her husband, a carpenter, and the local community.

“The most common themes were family and love. There were almost no hateful posts, except for a few directed at Justin Bieber,” she says.

While she can’t guarantee the teen heartthrob won’t appear on your wall, here’s what she has to say about implementing the project in your community:

Putting the wall up

  • Give yourself time to get city approval. Bureaucratic tape is redder than you think. “If you’re going to insist on doing it on city property then you have to sell the positives, take responsibility for the wall, and not give up if people start pushing back,” she says. “Emphasize that it’s a temporary project and that you can take it down if there are problems.”
  • See if Kickstarter is right for you. Sarah’s group successfully used the crowdfunding site, but it’s helpful to know 1) it excludes people who want to contribute but who don’t have an Amazon.com account and 2) projects that don’t meet their fundraising target by the deadline don’t receive any funding at all. If you decide to use Kickstarter, still connect offline. “I found it was important to connect with three or four key individuals in the community who were: prominent and influential figures, internet savvy, and well-connected through social media. They helped get the word out about the campaign and even appeared at community meetings to help promote and advocate the project,” she says.
  • Host a kickoff event. The event was a nice reward for Kickstarter backers, and a way to attract local newspapers and T.V. stations.
  • Choose a location that has a lot of pedestrian traffic. Meridian Bridge was an ideal choice not only for the amount of people who walked over it everyday, but the opportunity to highlight city architecture and encourage creativity along the riverfront.

Maintaining the wall

  • Think about how you want to divide responsibilities. It was important to Sarah that the wall be documented consistently, so she took on the majority of maintenance, with two people as backups if she wasn’t available. But more volunteers could easily help lighten the workload.
  • Keep the season in mind. Maintaining the wall takes effort – from washdowns to removing profanities – which Sarah found more enjoyable in warmer weather.
  • Believe in the goodness of your community. Ninety-five percent of the posts on the wall were in keeping with the spirit of the project, and defaming comments were either erased in the morning before anyone could see them or scratched out by others. “We viewed ourselves as “facilitators,” not “censors.” For example, a few people wrote that they wanted to legalize marijuana before they died, and we didn’t erase it. Others wanted to see certain politicians win/lose, and we left those, too,” she says.

“Find a couple of people you enjoy working with and then figure out how to do it,” Sarah finally says. “The first time you stand in front of the blackboard after it’s been filled with people’s hopes and dreams, it’ll be one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen.”

Inspired to create your own wall? Feel free to reach out to Sarah for more advice: sarah@mannesarchitects.com.

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Idea File: Give your ideas away for free

The idea

Some items people commonly collect include antiques, comic books, bobbleheads, shotglasses, and more. Kevin Boyle and Rick Horan collect ideas.

They stand in places like NYC’s High Line or Times Square with a large sign and ask people to share their ideas, some of which they post on their website or talk about in a podcast. They’ve heard it all: from tax returns that allow you to choose where your tax dollars are spent to a health rating for nail salons to making South America the largest rollerblading rink in the world. Some people even sing to them.

The idea came to Kevin after reading about blogger Andrew Dubber’s project to give 30 ideas in 30 days away for free.

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Kevin Boyle and Rick Horan. (Photo via Ideas Improv.)

“His rationale was, If I’m not going to do anything with these ideas, maybe someone else will,” Kevin says. “I started thinking about tweaking and expanding his idea and taking it to a much broader level. Instead of one guy doing it why not ask everyone?”

From solar energy to healthcare to education, most ideas they hear are for the common good.

“Our Ideas Wanted project is all about engagement. And there seems to be a yearning for good old conversation. Sharing ideas seems to us as the ideal way to open up organizations to new people and new ideas,” Kevin says.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Ideas for the sake of ideas. Ideas are inherently valuable and (most times) worth pursuing. Just giving someone the opportunity to say their idea aloud might help get them, or someone else, motivated to act on it.
  • Encourages unlikely connections. So far the duo has met people from 26 countries and counting. “The ideas we get are often great but without a doubt it’s the people we’ve met. I mean the smart, funny, curious, and generous folks we’ve come across has made the whole project worthwhile,” Kevin says.
  • Makes a case for not reinventing the wheel. Kevin and Rick have found that a lot of ideas aren’t new, and most are similar to one another. It’s a good reason to see what’s out there being done already, and connect with someone else first before starting from scratch.

How you can replicate it

Since the project launched last September, Kevin and Rick have taken their signs across the country from Miami to Seattle. They’d love nothing more than to go to all 50 states and then some in hopes of making a documentary.

Also in the works is “an ‘ideas’ program to promote idea sharing, brainstorming, collaboration, and creativity in schools.” Eventually they hope to engage civic groups, and given the damage Hurricane Sandy did to their hometown in the Rockaways, they also want to collect suggestions on how to make the area more resilient.

If you’re inspired to solicit strangers where you live, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Under the lights on Broadway. (Photo via Ideas Improv.)

  1. Go to the crowds. Locations that have a steady stream of people not in a rush are ideal.
  2. Make obvious signs with big letters. “Ideas Wanted” will spark people’s curiosity.
  3. Keep it general. Welcome ideas about anything and everything and allow yourself to be surprised.
  4. Bring a camera. “Some people are shy and that’s okay. Most people? They see a camera and they become much more intrigued,” Kevin says. “You can tell them the idea is being given out for all the world to see.”
  5. Limit idea pitches to 60 seconds or less. While some people will go on and on no matter what, having a time restraint will help most people focus.
  6. Persist with idea hoarders. “If people don’t want to share their idea because they’re afraid you’ll steal it, ask for their second, third, or fourth best idea,” Kevin says. You can also tell them you’re too busy doing the project to steal theirs.
  7. Ask for their contact information. You’ll want to keep them informed about how the project progresses.
  8. Have fun. Joke with and cajole people as they pass to make them feel invited.

“A lot of people will be stumped. They have ideas all the time but they’re suddenly brain dead when asked for an idea,” Kevin finally says. “Talk to them about the project. Tell them you’ll be there for a while so if they want to come back you’ll be ready. If you have fun with it, people will have fun, too.”

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Interested in promoting idea sharing at your school, nonprofit, or workplace? Feel free to get in touch with Kevin: kevinboyle@ideasimprov.com.

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Idea File: Pie-a-Day Giveaway

The idea

After hearing about someone who had written a thank you note a day for a year, Karen Amarotico from Ashland, Oregon felt inspired to do the same. Since waking up in the middle of the night over a year ago with the idea to say thank you with a pie instead, Karen has given over 390 pies to friends, family, and strangers.

Giving a pie a day away was Karen’s gratitude project.

“There is something sensual about the rolling out of the dough, peeling and slicing the fresh fruit, or stirring a rich chocolate pudding. All of these things seem to say ‘It took me awhile to make this pie, and you are worth every single minute,’ “ she says.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

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Karen isn’t the only one using pie to say thanks. Idealist staff member Ero Gray recently baked a pie a week for friends and family for one year. This is his Gluten-free Blueberry Cream Cheese creation. (Photo by Chris Machuca via pie-curious.blogspot.com.)

  • Brings joy and recognition to people through food. Karen says the best thing of all was seeing that she could bring a moment of happiness to someone with a gift of a pie. “It was a remarkable feeling and such an honor,” she says.
  • Small act that makes a big difference. Karen experienced many meaningful encounters through her pies, including brightening the day of a young girl with cancer who lived in her neighborhood. “What mattered most was that I had shown up,” she says.
  • Simple to do. If you have the time and resources to put into it, making a pie a day can quickly become routine, as it did for Karen.
  • Using your passion for good. During the course of the project, Karen, who had been baking for years, sometimes questioned her impact.  “I would get a thank you card or an email days or weeks later and would know that I had,” she says.  A few people gave small gifts and two people even made her a pie as a thank you.
  • Builds community. Many of the recipients of her pies were friends and family but before long she was getting requests to bake a pie for strangers. “In this way I met people who I never might have met and was able to say that someone else wanted them to be recognized,” she says.

How you can replicate it

    1. Have a goal and stick with it. The one-year timeframe helped Karen stay on track.
    2. Accept support from others. From the start her friends and family lent resources to help. Her friend bought her 250 pins. A neighbor made stickers for each of the pies. Her husband gifted her baking supplies. And so on. “I’d never thought about how I was going to get the tins. I just started baking!” she says.
    3. If you bake it they will come. Once the dough got rolling, Karen found that friends and strangers alike started recommending people to receive her pies.
    4. Take into account the person who’s receiving the gift and their needs. If Karen knew they had a sweet tooth she would give them a chocolate cream pie. For a busy mom, she would make a quiche that could be used for a quick fix dinner.
    5. Think ahead. Karen made pie dough in batches of eight, and had cheese pre-grated for quiche, which helped to cut down the cost of time.
    6. Set a budget. The ingredients for each pie averaged out to about $5. After adding in gas for delivery, the project cost her about $2,000 over the year.
    7. Start a blog. Karen’s blog has generated almost 30,000 views in one year with people all over the world reading her posts. “I thought that blogging would be a way to share my experiences and perhaps encourage others to begin their own gratitude project,” she says.

Karen continues to give away on average a pie a week and doesn’t see an end in sight. “I’m more willing now to go out of my way to thank or recognize someone even if I don’t know them. I think goodness should be recognized and honored in some way and am happy to do it,” she says.

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Inspired to start your own gratitude project? Feel free to reach out to Karen for advice: karen [dot] amarotico [at] gmail [dot] com

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Idea File: Would you live in a tiny house to help the environment?

The idea

The average home size in America is roughly 2,000 square feet. The average tiny house is less than one quarter of that size.

Tiny houses are literally what you might imagine: miniature dwellings complete with everything you need to live. (Think the adult version of a doll-house.) While most common in the U.S., tiny houses are gaining in popularity around the world, and can be found in countries from England to Japan.

The size may be less, but the options are many. You can buy a pre-fab home, or build your own. You can use straw, or wood. You can opt for a modern style, or a rustic one. Regardless of how you go about it, everyone who lives in a tiny house will agree: Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Ecologically sustainable. Tiny houses not only use less materials, but often try to be as ecologically sound as possible, from energy to water to light.
  • Increases self-awareness. The design is completely in your control. Every single decision has to be considered, which makes you examine how your choices align with your personal philosophy and needs.
  • Frees up time. Forget spending your weekends organizing the basement or mopping your kitchen. Smaller square footage means not only less clutter, but less time spent on the drudgery of cleaning, and more time to dedicate to family and friends, your hobbies and passions.
  • Intellectual challenge. Most tiny house advocates find there is a certain draw and excitement about making a small space perfectly functionally efficient.
  • Freedom of mobility. Tiny houses are often on wheels, and no matter where you are in the world, you always have a place to come home to.

How you can replicate it

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Portland, OR is one of the leading cities in the tiny house movement. (Photo from nicolas. boullosa via Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

Herbalist Karin Parramore in Portland, Oregon has recently started to build her own tiny house. As someone who’s always loved small things – her first doll named Tiny was two and half inches long – and traveled all over the globe, the idea of a miniature dwelling was immediately appealing.

Her future home will be built on wheels and include recycled materials. It will have solar power, an alcohol stove, electrical heater, and clear cabinets so she can see what she does and doesn’t use. For Karin, it aligns with her core values about ecological sustainability and fits with her nomadic lifestyle.

It’s been a three-year-process, from which she’s learned a lot from. Here’s what she has to say about building your own tiny house:

Philosophy

  1. Consider your relationship with personal space. From living all over the world, Karin has seen that there are radically varying ideas about what personal space means. Before you begin, examine your relationship with personal space, and know your limits. If you don’t like little spaces, then little spaces aren’t for you.
  2. Be willing to confront your philosophies. “It’s easy to say you believe in this or that,” Karin says. “But when you’re making the decision to live that philosophy, it really takes facing it head on and asking, Is it true? Do I really believe this? Is this how I want to live my life?”
  3. Set a minimum. Stop and reflect a moment. If there are amenities you absolutely have to have, or a certain amount of square footage to make you feel comfortable, it helps to know that from the beginning.
  4. Be open to the possibility of tossing physical memories. Some people give their memory boxes to family to keep. Others, like Karin, pick and choose which photos, objects, etc. to discard.

Building

  1. There’s always an answer to a problem. Because so many people have done this before you, there are a ton of ideas for you to steal. Don’t know what to do with your waste from the toilet? Try worm composting. Concerned about how to do laundry? Look into the Wonderwash. Perplexed about bathing? Consider a Japanese soaking tub, where you can store stuff when not in use.
  2. Know your zoning laws. Laws vary from state to state, county to county. Oregon, for example, prohibits dwellings less than 200 square feet. But because this is still a bit of a gray area, it’s a good opportunity for you to help influence the legal process from the start.
  3. Talk to your neighbors. To help lessen the chances that a neighbor will cause problems, go around and knock on doors to make sure there aren’t any issues.
  4. Don’t let cost deter you. Depending on what you want to do and your time constraints, expenses can range from next to nothing (if you use salvaged materials) to thousands of dollars.
  5. If you build it they will come. Karing found that once she started telling people about her idea, offers to help came out of the woodwork from friends, family, and the ever-growing tiny house community. Don’t be daunted by zero building experience; there are lots of resources already available from video blogs to networking events to books.

“This is my solution to despair about the state of the world,” Karin finally says.”It’s selfish. I want to feel better. I don’t want to feel like I’m hopelessly watching the world devolve. This is my way of remaining hopeful.”
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Interested in building a tiny house of your own? Feel free to reach out to Karin for advice: herbalearn@yahoo.com.

 

 

 

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Idea File: Drive change through PARK (ing) Day

The idea

Every year in September, groups of people band together to transform parking spaces in cities across the world as part of PARK (ing) Day.

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Idealist’s Idea Swap at PARK (ing) Day 2009, where we asked New Yorkers for their suggestions for a better city. (Photo from IIP State via Flickr/Creative Commons.)

From their website:

“The mission of PARK (ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat … at least until the meter runs out!”

The event began in 2005 when the art and design studio Rebar temporarily planted themselves, a sod of grass, a bench, and a tree in a parking spot as a way to challenge San Francisco’s use of downtown outdoor space.

Since then, thousands of activists, artists, and everyday citizens have put their own local spin on the event as a way to playfully engage their communities. Think flash mob — but with a social conscience.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Open source community development. Locals decide what issues in their communities they want to address, and how.
  • Purposeful repurposing. From health clinics to free bike repair shops to urban farms, creative participants all over the world are careful to not let one inch of empty space go to waste.
  • Attainable impact. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s recently inspired city governments to take action. NYC’s pop up café program temporarily places table and chairs in front of businesses to utilize limited street space, for example, while in San Francisco small urban parks called “parklets” can frequently be found where cars used to be.
  • Takes fun seriously. Sure, the ultimate goal is to drive change, but who says you gotta have a straight face to do it? Play a community piano, explore a mini-jungle, or show off your moves at a dance party: the possibilities are endless.

How you can replicate it

In 2011 alone, there were 975 parks in 35 countries from Brazil to South Korea. Rebar has made it easy for you to add to that number this year, providing a comprehensive how-to manual and promotional material such as posters, T-shirts, and more.

We also reached out to the folks behind Brisbane PARK (ing) Day, who’ve helped numerous other cities in Australia get organized, for their advice on how to host a successful event.

Here’s what designer and urbanist Yen Trinh had to say:

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Be tenacious about tapping into the knowledge of the international network.
  2. Partner with the community. Design schools, cafe owners, landscape architects, and urban designers can offer a lot of good ideas.
  3. Know the local laws. There is no quick answer as to whether or not the event is legal. Make sure you know what you can and cannot do, and speak to your local politicians.
  4. Ignore the haters. You’ll likely encounter people who think it’s risky; chances are you’ll pull off the event trouble-free.

“Urban design and public spaces are critical to the well-being of our cities,” Yen finally says. “Things like Park(ing) Day are just one small step to broaden the discussion of what kinds of places we want to live in.”

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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