November 10, 2018

ImpactKit: a tool to innovate social change


Design Thinking is all about having great conversations. A dozen years ago I was in the foothills of the Himalayas processing six months of incredible conversations for my masters thesis on Cultural Values in Non-Violent Political Movements. I had been studying the culture of social movements, interviewing leaders from some of the 20th century’s most high profile movements and surveying attitudes of those on the front lines of the US Civil Rights movement, the South African Anti-Apartheid movement, and Tibetan autonomy movement, and in doing so had talked to hundreds of people from all walks and strata of society.


As I sat on the edge of a thousand foot drop off, I had the feeling that there was more to social change than a singular action or group of serendipitous activities, an insight I wouldn’t pick up until years later.


Three years ago I founded ION studios – a strategy, research, and design firm – to help emerging and established organizations achieve outsized social impact.


In the early days I was approached by a startup social enterprise to help them develop a fundraising strategy. They they were excited to tell me that they had been working on a new idea:  to help people publicize their feelings towards companies that didn’t fit their values. I saw their hearts sink when I asked what special twist they were putting on protest, and they realized they had spent six weeks coming up with the idea that you could/should speak truth to power, but hadn’t figured out a novel approach to circumventing any of the approaches to doing so.


There were others as well. One of my favorite questions to begin a strategic plan with is “What do you do?” I remember sitting down with one organization’s Board of Directors and senior leadership, and people were learning in that meeting about advocacy initiatives and professional development programs that the organization was leading because they had always been referred to in convoluted terminology that didn’t traslate across expertises.


I was working with an alliance of educators and funders, they were trying to build out a new field, but stuck because the same handful of large organizations were receiving the lion’s share of the funding, and passing it through to smaller organizations. This model was stifling the ability of the alliance to scale as it was choking out the innovators and the replicators.


After a few of these kinds of interactions I began to wonder what would happen if these innovators had a list of existing methods to start from.


As these challenges came up I kept reaching for books and notes from my research, and I began to form a design brief that would launch ImpactKit: How can I give the social sector a tool to innovate and design for systemic social change?


I turned to my experience in design thinking to develop the answer. I gravitate to the human-centered-design methodology because it is the most reliable framework I have found for creating solutions that are both useful for the underlying problem and actually used by the people I hope to serve. By immersing yourself in stakeholders’ contexts and having those great conversations you find the insights necessary to understand the crux of a challenge and the obstacles and hindrances to address it through existing means. As I moved forward with the initial sensing for ImpactKit I found three things:


  • teams weren’t aware of longstanding practices of social change that happened outside of their specific domain (e.g. educators weren’t using the methods of public health)
  • teams weren’t talking about what they did in a universal language
  • strategies were diverse, but not intentionally systemic (i.e. they are engaged in a variety of activities, but they aren’t set up to mutually reinforce or enhance the impact between and among them)


My design team and I found the answer in a deck of cards.


In a world that defaults to digital we found that our favorite design tools were all physical: sticky notes, whiteboard, and increasingly specialized decks of cards that on a range of topics (our favorites are IDEO’s Method Cards and PIRC’s Values Deck) that help teams work as a team, spark brainstorming, and collaborate on thinking.


There is something unique about a physical object, in education holding something in your hand helps make an abstract idea more concrete, in strategy sessions having something to move around allows people to experiment with “what ifs?” and in our own office it is something to absentmindedly flip through when insight comes unexpectedly.


So we set to the work of empathetic research. I interviewed around 250 practitioners: colleagues who run large non-profits around the world, consultants who build strategic plans, funders who work in vast networks, colleagues who work in program and service design. I heard about niche methods in fields as disparate as public health and arts education and started to see certain “molecules of change” (as one of my team members started to call the recurring combinations of impact methods) emerge.


My team then scoured academic articles, books by preeminent thinkers, popular media, and lists of social change methods  and eventually covered the walls of our office in sticky-notes representing over 2500 methods of social change.


As we spoke with practitioners and strategists, we started to form the information architecture of the cards. People needed to quickly get a clear idea of each method, but it also needed some level of ambiguity, that is where the discussion and engagement is. So we came up with a bold title and a sentence fragment, enough information to get the essence across, but not so much that people didn’t have to consider it for more than a moment. These conversations also led us to realize that we needed a strong visual representation, an icon so that once the card was on the table it could be quickly found again amongst the rest of the stack.


Over the course of two months we held six informal workshops with friends and long sessions with our design team to winnow the list down to 200 methods, and the cards down to what we thought made the right balance of brevity and depth. We observed how people used the cards, asked lots of questions, and did quite a bit of reflection. We saw museum staff using the cards to define their current portfolio and discovering methods they hoped to use to reach new audiences. We saw people who had been stuck implementing the traditional approach to homelessness suddenly shift gears when they randomly pulled out a card with a concept that they were aware of but had never considered applying their own challenge.


In the workshops people kept wanting to know more about each method after they had gone through the activities so they could more completely understand the idea, see examples, and put it to use. So we went back to the studio and created an online portal; each card now has a link to a corresponding page that has a more complete description, examples, common pitfalls to avoid, and resources needed to deploy.


Launched in 2017, today you can find ImpactKit on the bookshelves of NGO’s in Geneva, in social responsibility sessions in Fortune 500 meeting rooms, in dusty design sprints in remote jungles, and in executive schools for social innovation. And in teams around the world have taken the design activities and the cards and the database and done amazing things:


  • social innovators are using it to map the landscape of actors and influencers working on a topic so that they can identify opportunities within the system to make small moves with big impact.


  • small nonprofits use it with the people they serve to identify what services and efforts the public is aware of, but also what they still need and where organizations can direct resources to improve outcomes.


  • We have integrated it into our Theory of Impact planning – a combination business, impact activity, and change model – designing more intentionally interdependent impact by demonstrating its systemic relationship.


  • Fundraising and communications consultants use it as a tool to get expert out of there jargon and communicate in a language that funders and the public understand.


ImpactKit has been used to help develop a small initiative to help people in transitional status (e.g. refugees, asylees, and immigrants) to contribute meaningfully to their temporary communities, increasing dignity and mutual understanding. It has been used by a foundation to develop a funding strategy that has a systemic effect on slavery and human trafficking. And it has been integrated into the design curriculum of THNK – a school for social sector innovators in Amsterdam.


Sitting on the side of the Himalayas talking to Tibetan activists and leaders of the government-in-exile about how their movement was evolving, I could have never imagined that I was listening to the seeds of a tool for global change.

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About Michael Radke

Michael Radke

The author culture architect, impact designer, experience curator, educator, explorer. His passion is exploring the human experience, connecting with people, and sharing what I find with others in the hope of building a more understanding, sustainable, and just future for all people. He is executive director at the Ubuntu Foundation and Chief Strategist at ION Studios. You can connect with him on Linkedin here (

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