Helping Social Impact Designers Faster! Our NEA Grant for Proactive Practices

Exciting news!  Proactive Practices, my research collaborative which investigates emerging business models of social impact design just got a research grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. The project was born for me a few years ago out of a very basic question. I’d seen celebrations of social impact design blowing up in the design press and media, but the attention was mostly focused on a fairly self-congratulatory what, (the projects and the designers behind them) instead of the how the works got done. I wanted to know which organizations were producing these projects, what business strategies and models they were using to do this kind of work and build sustainable, thriving businesses, and what the trade-offs were of the different models they had chosen. The project started for me as an independent study while I was in graduate school, and I linked up with Nick McClintock and Gilad Meron who were also asking these questions. Our research team has pushed the project forward, interview by interview, article by article, diagram and talk and presentation by presentation since, but now, thanks to the NEA and a matching grant from The University of Pennsylvania, we finally have a significant project budget to push this forward faster and get useful information to design practitioners who want to make social impact.

Here are 3 specific reasons why I’m excited about this grant:

We have a real budget:

Our team has poured countless hours into this project (I know I spent almost 100 hours on it in the last year.)  We’ve prioritized it. One of my research partners and I even made a pact one week to donate to the Republican party if we didn’t hit our project goal. But this is the kind of project that requires making enough headspace to really get into it and be able to both plan and to work. With a significant budget we can also hire people to do things that are either not our strongest suit, or the best use of our time. We can hire web developers or graphic designers and get our interviews transcribed, pay for web plugins and other resources that will help us get our information to our audience faster and more effectively.

We have a timeline:

I am an impatient, action-oriented person. I get antsy if I find myself spending too much time planning and not enough time doing. While I initiated this research project for my own purposes—After three years in graduate school, I wanted to know what practice options were out there for designers to make social impact—I never intended to sit on my findings. Our research team has shared our learnings through talks and articles, but not enough, and not fast enough for my taste. I am a recovering perfectionist, I have been hugely influenced by ideas from books like The Lean Startup that advise you to put your work out there in successive beta launches that are good not perfect. I’d rather get good work out there now that practitioners can use today, than wait to craft something perfect, but not all my research partners agree. Both positions have merit, and having the funds to get closer to perfect, and a timeline to get closer to good is great mediator between our values.

We have specific deliverables:

We’ve always had specific goals of output for this effort—A publication and a web presence. But now we’re on the hook to produce those outcomes and need to get them done within the next year. I often like to work backwards from my specific deliverable—I’ll lay out a publication even before I have the content to feed into it because it helps me use my time more efficiently and only spend time developing what I actually need to develop. It also means that from the get-go I’m thinking from the perspective of my end user, about how they will actually use what I’m developing for them, how it can solve their problems and fit into the context of their lives. Knowing exactly what we’ve committed to producing means we’ll jump into that process faster and with more specificity. We can go through the iterative cycles of making something that changes the way social impact designers practice faster. I can’t wait until the day I’m back on this blog announcing the launch of insight and information you can use. If you want to be notified of our launch, sign up for our list.


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