Community Listening Creates Learning: How We Applied Design Thinking to Solve Our Own Problems

When I took the position as CEO, I knew there would be challenges.

Throughout my interview process, people I talked to said that they hadn’t heard of United Way, and if they had, they weren’t sure what it was doing. After I joined, I realized we had real problems to address, but I knew the staff and I were prepared to address them…together. What we needed first was an approach that worked for us.

I knew about Design Thinking from my work with Kevin Popovic, aka, The Idea Guy™,, who had helped me address problems at Alliance Healthcare Foundation. I was confident he could help me again. Our Marketing Department would also be an important resource since they were helping us communicate to the community.

Together, we engaged in a “Design Thinking” strategy with a specific methodology. We translated that outline into a process that worked for us. It started with a problem statement, and after gathering many opinions – because everyone has one! – here’s where it landed:

How might United Way of San Diego County best communicate who we are, what we do, and who we help to the people in the San Diego community?

What did people think of us? We needed to find out what they already knew and what they thought they knew and ask them to tell us. We needed to build an emotional connection, to Empathize. We found out we were confusing everyone, that every description of UWSD was different, depending on when and where it was posted. No wonder no one knew what we did!

It was time to reach out directly to our community – in blog posts, on social media, in emails – with a survey that asked some tough questions.

We offered online webinars to speak to groups of people in our community. They were glad we were listening and wanted to learn more. So we followed with focus groups and interviews with folks who knew us well or not at all. We needed everybody’s input to truly capture the many perspectives within our region.

The next stage, Define, meant challenging the problem statement: we had to confirm what we learned to make sure we were working on the right problem. Here’s what we heard, and it wasn’t pretty:

  • 60% don’t think they can easily find information about us.
  • One of every four people don’t know what our goals are and, therefore,
  • 66% weren’t sure they could trust us to accomplish those goals.

Could we win y’all back? We thought we could, and we had a plan to make that happen

  • Rebuild Trust
    • Prove we do what we say we do
    • Share stories, create storytellers, enable advocates
    • Align to goals, name partners, include outcomes

So we knew the problem, but did we really understand it from all perspectives? We needed to look at the problem through different types of people – 16 “personas” – including donors, partners, and those we serve, to make sure we were reading with the right pair of glasses.

So much new information! It was time for an updated problem statement:

How might United Way of San Diego County increase access to information, better educate the community on our work, and build trust within our community?

We came up with lots and lots of possible solutions to our problem. Even our staff put in their two cents on multi-colored Post-its in our hallway. Creative collaboration was in full force! We collected all those ideas and shared them at 11 salons held across the county. Talking, listening, making changes, and then back to the drawing board: more salons, more meetings, and more feedback. All of it was absolutely necessary. It was vitally important to me that you knew we heard what the community said they wanted from us, and we were determined to follow through.

We finally settled on language that reflected our intent and our goals.

We strengthen our community when we align, leverage, and transform.

We had our watchwords and our intentions were clear:

  • We ALIGN with our partners to identify sustainable, long-term goals we want to achieve together.
  • We LEVERAGE the use of data and our partners’ expertise to better understand root causes, and put impactful solutions into action.
  • We TRANSFORM the lives of children, young adults, and families

With the right words in place, we were ready to deliver the message: in brochures, in banners, in posters, in press releases. We were ready to share our words … But first, we needed to put it to the Test.

Which brings me to this morning’s breakfast, where we shared our message, our intention, our direction, and our clarity with our key stakeholders. Our community! Our partners, our supporters, our donors, our friends, our colleagues and our business leaders.

We hope you’ll come along for the ride with us, in this new direction, with its clear communication about what we’re doing and why and who it benefits. We think it benefits our whole community. Everyone is included … Because the only way we’ll get there is together!

We hope you’ll align with United Way. That you’ll partner with us and others so that together, we can transform lives in our community.

By Nancy Sasaki, CEO, United Way of San Diego County