The Rise of Design Philanthropy
The launch of the new Autodesk Foundation marks another catalytic moment for the social sector.
During my seven-year tenure directing San Francisco-based nonprofit Public Architecture, I regularly found myself in foundation offices across the country—some modest but most very nicely designed. In each, I’d passionately pitch design as a unique and largely untapped means to impact a wide range of social challenges, including education, health, climate change, and urbanization.
More times than not, foundation leaders dismissed design as tangential—even superfluous—to their interest areas. Design simply didn’t fit into their grantmaking priorities or theories of change—ironic, given the obvious investment in their own beautifully designed offices.
However, in recent years, the pendulum has started to swing, thanks in large part to the human-centered design approach practiced and espoused by IDEO—especially its nonprofit spinoff, IDEO.org, launched in 2011. The two entities have crafted refreshingly clear, jargon-free language to describe design: “The process helps people hear the needs of users and communities, create innovative approaches to meet these needs, and deliver solutions that work in specific cultural and economic contexts.”
The two entities have also enlisted, inspired, and empowered non-designers as ambassadors, evidenced by the nearly 50,000 members of IDEO.org’s HCD Connect network. Michael Manness, vice president of journalism and media innovation of the Knight Foundation, is just one individual case in point. Leading off Knight’s annual Media Learning Seminar last month, Manness spoke about the three pillars of human-centered design: “It begins with anthropology, to understand how people live their lives; empathy, as in recognizing what others’ reality is, to gain insights; then … iterating—using rationality to say ‘this works, this doesn’t.’”
Simple words like empathy, listening, and iteration are hallmarks of human-centered design; and they resonate with both foundation executives and design leaders, providing long-needed common ground. With believers like Manness and scores of other influencers, design has become a consistent topic of discussion across the philanthropic and social sectors. Even in the four years since I left Public Architecture to sit on the other side of the table, I hope and trust that far fewer nonprofit leaders have to explain the fundamental value of design in their development meetings and are instead sought out because they value it.
So what besides IDEO’s leadership catalyzed the change? The 2012 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting, themed “Designing for Impact,” was arguably a turning point for the field. CGI, with advisement from IDEO, astutely presented design in three interconnected ways.
The first focused on “designing for individuals,” showcasing life-saving health devices like nonprofit D-Rev’s low-cost prosthetic knee and physical tools to improve livelihood, and KickStart International’s MoneyMaker irrigation pumps for smallholder farmers across Africa. The second focused on “designing our environments,” masterfully illustrated in the breakthrough Butaro Hospital in rural Rwanda, co-created by Partners in Health and the nonprofit architecture firm MASS Design Group. The third area focused on “designing our systems,” touching on the design or redesign of services and systems that we rely on to deliver aid, be it clean water or medicine to the last mile.
Yesterday’s announcement of the new Autodesk Foundation, in which I’ve played a leadership role, marks another catalytic moment for design and philanthropy. Premised on the belief that everyone deserves good design, the foundation is billing itself as the first foundation dedicated to “design for impact.” In a field where funding is highly competitive, this commitment on the part of Autodesk, Inc. represents a substantial expansion of opportunity and support.
Building on the more widely adopted terms of human-centered design, public interest design, and social impact design, Autodesk is coining the term “impact design.” The foundation’s mission directly aligns with its namesake’s core business of manufacturing software to help people imagine, design, and create a better world. Predating the foundation launch, the company made a 2013-2014 CGI commitment of $7.5 million in software donations to the social sector in the program’s first year.
To be sure, design and philanthropy have partnered in important and lasting ways over the past century, long before Autodesk’s investment. At the turn of the last century, Andrew Carnegie’s fortune underwrote the design and construction of more than 2,500 public libraries around the world. When the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was established in 1964, so too was a dedicated Design Division, which remains a thriving fixture of the endowment to this day. Beyond individual philanthropists like Carnegie and public funding from the NEA, private and even corporate foundations have long dabbled in design.
What we see in the Autodesk Foundation, however, is a critical next step of recognizing design as a crucial ingredient and unmatched tool in a spectrum of social change work. Just as IDEO gave the sector contagious language for design, the Autodesk Foundation is poised to infuse much-needed financial support. There are four pilot grantees—D-Rev, KickStart International, MASS Design Group, and Auburn University’s Rural Studio, all profiled on the foundation’s website—and future grantees will likely include design-driven nonprofits, individual design practitioners, university programs, and select projects with a commitment to measuring impact.
The foundation and Autodesk are also partnering to equip grantees with cutting-edge technology, and the foundation is entering into and planning to contribute to a vibrant community and global network of partners, already hard at work.
I’ve long approached this work with the belief that it takes meaningful partnerships—between compassionate corporate and private foundation leaders, visionary clients, determined designers, and countless others—to realize the full potential of design. Leveraging their collective support, we hope to see a surge in design for a better world, where one day, impactful projects like Rwanda’s breathtaking Butaro Hospital are not the exception, but the norm.