How to Use Design Thinking as an Approach To Engage Volunteers

Main image for design thinking - engaging volunteers nonprofit article.

Design is an intrinsic part of our everyday behaviour and determines - to a certain extent - the quality of our lives. It plays a crucial role in shaping the functionality of our homes, the utilization of technology, and even the effectiveness of education and healthcare systems, all with the aim of enhancing our overall well-being. Likewise, nonprofit organizations can greatly benefit from embracing design-thinking principles when it comes to volunteer engagement. By mastering the art of design thinking, nonprofits organizations can optimize their processes and create more rewarding experiences for both volunteers and the communities they serve.

Like most design intends to do, design thinking is a practice that uses a creative toolkit to solve a host of problems and streamline processes. What makes it unique is that it is human-centred and helps the people it solves problems for. The process is also collaborative and action-focused. Consequently, it tackles all kinds of challenges that lack structure or method by reframing the problem with human behaviour at the forefront. 

Design thinking can be considered radical because it is uniquely rooted in questioning, unlike any other implementation process. It requires addressing the questions at hand, assumptions about that problem, and the implications it has as a result. But what is the value of design thinking, especially in the context of engaging volunteers?

Volunteers are the backbone of many organizations, and they are esteemed in a way that is quantifiable yet infinite. Most - if not all - nonprofit organizations want their volunteers to feel valued and engaged with the work that they do. These organizations want to provide a positive environment for their volunteers, making them feel like they're contributing to the overall mission. Design thinking can help. It opens up new possibilities for volunteers, resulting in a better experience for everyone.

Because it is so rooted in human need, questions that design thinking can answer are, "What is the experience of volunteering like?" and, "How might we make it better?" In this article, we will explore the practical application of design thinking methodologies, with a specific focus on the Five Phases of Design Thinking. By examining these phases within the context of nonprofit organizations, we will provide concrete examples to illustrate how design thinking can transform volunteer engagement and create more meaningful experiences for both volunteers and the communities in which they serve.

The Five Phases of Design Thinking

As mentioned, design thinking is a process concerned with solving complex problems in a highly human-centric way. It consists of five steps or phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. While these steps work in tandem with each other, they aren't necessarily sequential or need to be followed in a specific order and can be iterated on at any given time, specific to your organization's needs. 


Design thinking is so human-centred that it requires a level of reframing to understand volunteers' perspectives and their needs. Empathy, therefore, is critical in problem-solving because it addresses and understands specific consumer behaviour and aspirations first and foremost and helps to uncover opportunities on a needs basis; when you know "who" you're solving a problem for, design thinking informs the "how" in which you solve it. 

This phase involves observing and engaging with volunteers on a deeper emotional and psychological level, allowing the design team to internalize and empathize with their experiences. 

Imagine a nonprofit organization focused on providing educational support and mentorship to underprivileged children in a local community. Let's call them Hopeful Steps. They conduct one-on-one interviews and focus group discussions to reveal volunteers' motivations and challenges. Some are passionate about the cause but face time constraints, while others are unsure about how to contribute effectively. Additional surveys of the children and their families highlight specific educational needs and aspirations. 

Armed with this understanding, the organization can tailor their volunteer engagement strategies to address the unique needs of both volunteers and the children they serve to create more meaningful and impactful experiences for everyone involved.


When applying design thinking to volunteer management for nonprofits, the "Define" phase is another crucial step. After gathering valuable insights about potential solutions, the focus shifts to reshuffling and sorting through this information to gain clarity and definition. This valuable data is organized into a creative brief that combines strategic direction and creative inspiration.

Hopeful Steps, the nonprofit we discussed earlier, carefully analyzes the insights gathered during their empathize phase. They discover that a recurring theme among their current volunteers is a desire for more structured and flexible volunteer opportunities that fit into their busy schedules. The volunteers expressed that they would be more engaged if they had clear guidelines on how to contribute effectively and saw the tangible impact they make in the children's lives.

Ideate and Collaborate

In this next phase, the focus shifts towards generating creative solutions collaboratively. Armed with a comprehensive understanding of the volunteers' needs and the problems at hand, the organization can foster an environment conducive to divergent and innovative thinking. This phase encourages the exploration of diverse options, ensuring that all potential ideas are embraced and thoroughly assessed. The creative brief serves as a guiding lighthouse, keeping the team aligned and heading toward strategically viable solutions aligned with the organization's objectives.

During collaborative brainstorming sessions, the Hopeful Steps team explores various ideas to enhance volunteer engagement and educational support for the children. Everyone is encouraged to propose even the most unconventional and provocative ideas.

One that emerges is to establish a "Buddy System" where each child is paired with a dedicated volunteer mentor. The mentorship program would provide one-on-one support to the children, addressing their specific educational needs and personal development goals. This approach aligns with the volunteers' desire for meaningful engagement and the children's need for personalized assistance.

Other ideas begin to surface, such as creating a digital platform that connects volunteers with different skill sets to children who require specific academic or extracurricular support. This solution provides more flexibility for volunteers while ensuring that children receive assistance in areas they need most.


The "Prototype" phase holds immense significance as it emphasizes the value of experimentation and transforming ideas into tangible models. Through iteration and prototyping, valuable insights emerge, shedding light on any potential gaps, barriers, constraints, or flaws in the design. This process is highly beneficial as it allows for continuous improvement and refinement of ideas. 

For the "Buddy System" mentorship program, Hopeful Steps decides to pilot the initiative with a small group of volunteers and children. They match each child with a dedicated volunteer mentor and set up a structured framework for their interactions. Through this prototype, they can observe how well the mentorship program works in practice and gather feedback from both volunteers and children.

Simultaneously, they start building the digital platform for connecting volunteers with specific skills to children in need of academic or extracurricular support. They create a user-friendly interface and test its functionality with a select group of volunteers and children to ensure its effectiveness and ease of use.

Even if redesigns or rejections occur, they are viewed as essential components of the collaborative process, fostering teamwork and driving the ultimate goal of creating something meaningful and useful for volunteers and the organization alike. 


Testing a viable solution holds immense importance, as it is crucial in validating and refining the solutions developed through the design thinking process. Engaging volunteers with a vested interest in the addressed problem is essential to ensure success. By asking open-ended questions that elicit constructive responses, such as "What problem could this solve for you?" or "How could this solution impact your experience?" nonprofits can gain valuable insights and feedback from the volunteers themselves.

The mentorship program set up by Hopeful Steps might expand to include a larger group of volunteers and children. Interactions and progress are closely monitored, seeking feedback from both volunteers and children to understand their experiences. This feedback helps assess the program's strengths and identify areas for improvement.

Simultaneously, they decide to launch a digital platform for connecting volunteers with specific skills to children in need. Volunteers and children are encouraged to provide feedback on the platform's usability and whether it adequately meets their needs. The organization pays close attention to the data and usage patterns to gauge the platform's effectiveness in matching volunteers with the right support opportunities.

This continuous optimization process is where design thinking shines, as nonprofits can use their findings and learnings from testing to refine and enhance their volunteer engagement strategies until they effectively solve the problem. By embracing this dynamic and flexible approach, nonprofits can ensure that their volunteer management efforts remain relevant, impactful, and responsive to the needs and aspirations of their volunteers.

Optimizing Nonprofit Volunteer Engagement with Sparkrock 365

Design thinking, as an intuitive problem-solving approach, becomes even more powerful when coupled with an ERP system like Sparkrock 365. 

Our cloud-based ERP solution offers a wealth of data insights that enrich the design thinking process, enabling nonprofits to make informed decisions and create impactful solutions. By integrating Sparkrock 365 with other data analytics tools, organizations can gain valuable information about their volunteers' needs, preferences, and engagement patterns. 

This data-driven approach allows nonprofits to make informed decisions, identify areas for improvement, and optimize their volunteer engagement strategies accordingly. The combination of design thinking's human-centric approach and data-driven decision-making empowers nonprofits to create more impactful and personalized experiences for their volunteers, leading to a stronger and more engaged volunteer community.

If you want to learn about our cloud-based ERP solution for nonprofits, we invite you to view our online demo here.

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