Of Pitfalls And Pivots: How Design Impact Found Its Way Home
Inspired by our From Failure To Resolution series, Ramsey Ford of the social innovation firm Design Impact got in touch with Impact Design Hub to share his own story. We recently spoke with Ramsey about his work, how a lucky meeting sent him half way around the world, and how he and his partner had to pivot and improvise to find a sustainable path to creating social change back home.
Impact Design Hub: Can you give us some quick background on Design Impact — who are you and what do you do?
Ramsey Ford: Design Impact is a social innovation firm that works to create a more inclusive and creative social sector. We work with nonprofits, social service agencies, mission-driven for-profits and municipalities — basically anybody who’s working to make communities healthier, better, stronger, and more equitable. We help them to approach what they’re doing in a more creative way and to involve communities more deeply in their process. We’ve been headquartered in our home town of Cincinnati for the past two and a half years, but that only came after a major shift in strategy. Prior to that we were almost exclusively focused on India.
IDH: That’s a pretty major contrast. Why did you choose to start your work in India?
RF: At the time we were interested in looking at issues of absolute poverty in places outside of the United States. But also, as a product designer — that’s my background — it seemed like there would be more potential for product-based solutions that could have community impact in a context like India than there would be in the U.S. where markets and products are already pretty sophisticated.
IDH: You didn’t have any prior connection to India?
RF: No. Kate Hanisian, my co-founder, and I created a lot of metrics and looked at different locations. We were interested in globalized poverty and eventually decided on India and we wanted really deep engagement with community.
At that time I was a senior designer at a firm in Cincinnati called Kaleidoscope. One day I was walking by the CEO’s office and, out of the blue, he invited me in for a talk. He started asking me questions about where I wanted to to go and what kind of work I wanted to be involved in. I told him that social impact work was my passion, and that I honestly didn’t see myself being at Kaleidoscope in a few years. I told him that it was a great place, but they just weren’t doing what I ultimately wanted to do.
His response surprised me. He said that he was really interested in what I was saying and that Kaleidoscope wasn’t a static firm. He wanted to learn more and asked for a presentation. Five presentations and a couple of business plans later, they asked us to start the nonprofit and agreed to fund the first two years. They saw it as something that was very much in line with their overall mission to make the world a better place with design. Considering the struggles we’d eventually have with funding, this was an amazingly serendipitous start.
IDH: So at this point you proceeded to just hop on a plane and go to India and started living and working there?
RF: Well, first we spent the next nine months preparing to launch the non-profit and move; then we basically just packed our lives up. It was terrifying. We moved to a village in Tamil Nadu in southern India for about two years to work closely with a grassroots organization, ODAM. Once there, we supported our partners in developing two social enterprises: a clean burning briquette and a fair-trade soap business. The time spent there allowed us to work as full partners — not just designers, but as co-creators in staff development, community engagement, and, eventually, launching a business.
The work was difficult, but had positive impact with our partners and community, so we decided to scale up the deeply embedded model by starting a fellowship program. We found other grassroots non-profit partners throughout India. We did a call for fellows and found our first class of six. We hand-selected them, trained them, placed them with partners, and tracked their progress. They were on the ground for six months working on clean burning cook stoves, small plot farming equipment, nutrition products for kids, and online education platforms for educating youth. Eventually we ran a second class of four fellows that stayed on the ground for 10 months with some of the same projects and some new ones.
The fellowship program created a lot of value and really deep engagement. The fellows were profoundly changed by their time in India, the partner organizations saw a lot of value in it, and a number of the projects were having impact within their communities. We were having what we considered success — ideas were implemented and sustained at a local level. But, despite all of that programmatic success, the funding model was very difficult to maintain.
IDH: So you weren’t able to find a sustainable funding model for this particular way of doing things — is that fair to say?
RF: Exactly. We tried a few different strategies for funding the fellowship, but we had a really hard time finding people who wanted to to fund it. We looked at partnerships with other fellowship-type programs, large national funders and international funders, and corporate engagements around professional development for corporate designers. We were able to secure funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, but at the end of the day, we weren’t finding enough other funding sources. So we decided to pivot.
IDH: Why do you think your model didn’t work for funders in the end?
RF: Part of it was that we weren’t connected to international funders. They weren’t in our mid-western or village level networks. But, there also wasn’t a lot of interest in funding fellowships. People wanted to fund direct impact and not designers’ experiences, which is how the fellowship was often framed. The slow change model of embedding designers wasn’t something that naturally fit the way that funders often look at investing and impact. Our model was indirect, and while it created many benefits for fellows, partners, and communities, it is easier to fund direct investments in organizations to build their own organizational capacity.
IDH: So what did the transition to trying to find a more viable model look like?
We had always been working with very slim budgets, but we hit a point where we didn’t know where the income was going to come from. At this point we had survived for four years, but we didn’t know what was next, and it didn’t look great. We had to take an honest look at our model. We couldn’t assume that we were right, that the fellowship was the best, or only, way to do this work. It meant being honest about our ability to sustain the work financially and emotionally. You have to be really tough on yourself. Not every idea that you have is a winner. You have to be honest with yourself and admit that if it isn’t working you need to make a change.
So it was change by necessity. We first defined what the pivot was going to require us to give up: it meant leaving India and dropping our flagship program, the fellowship. That was pretty much what Design Impact was, up to that point; it was how we promoted ourselves, what we oriented our media and most of our budget around. And there we were, deciding to drop that as our primary mode of creating change. We embraced a whole new model for change. Instead of training and embedding fellows — and trying to find funding support for our own program — we built a model that allowed for more dynamic partnerships, and thus more options for funding. The new approach involved both equipping leaders in the social sector with innovation tools as well as a deep partnership consulting model that supports non-profits in incubating their own projects.
Now conceptually, when you think of a pivot, you think of something where you hit a corner and you turn sharply. That’s what it was supposed to be on paper, and that’s how we presented it at the time. But it’s not like we had partners lined up for our new services. We didn’t. It took time for people to realize how they could partner with us and to build these new relationships
IDH: Is your current funding model based on these kinds of partnerships?
RF: Yes, our funding comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes partners self-fund projects or have funding relationships to support the work, or we work directly with foundations or with city government. I always think of design as a process that’s contingent on other partners to implement and create, so we often collaborate with our implementing partners to write grants. And that’s completely different from what we were doing in India, where our partners supported some of the program costs, but the majority of the costs were covered by grants and donations to us.
IDH: It seems like an important lesson from your narrative. Just because you pivoted and changed, doesn’t mean there’s going to be immediate payoff and validation. That’s the usual heroic story arc: It wasn’t working, we were at our wits end, then we switched it around and “bam!” — we made it. But sometimes you have to wait a little longer and keep biting your nails until a model pays off. Is that right?
RF: That’s totally correct. It took several months for us to really turn the corner. We went down to about two full-time staff before eventually bringing on our first new hire six months after the pivot. During that transition, I took a visiting professorship at the University of Cincinnati to enable us to stretch out our funds and keep the work going. In our case it was worth the risk — almost three years after the pivot, we now have 12 full-time employees.
IDH: Can you talk a little bit about the barriers to successful impact you experienced in India and how the geographical shift back to the U.S. has affected things for you?
RF: There’s a lot that’s been written about trying to do design development in places that you’re not highly familiar with or not native to. There’s a hurdle there, for sure. We were really conscious of our role as outsiders and applied community organizing practices to ensure that we supported local leadership, rather than doing the leading ourselves. But from an effectiveness perspective, we found that the Indian designers that we hired as fellows were simply able to get more done with the time they had. All the fellows did an amazing job — the worked hard and intelligently and did great work — but it was interesting to see how impactful Indian designers could be.
For us, the geographic shift in moving back was huge. From a personal perspective, it meant not being burnt out. We had spent the past four years mostly living in India, but also traveling regularly and it had taken its toll on our relationships and connection to community. As far as the work goes in the U.S. and in Cincinnati, we know more about the communities and have a better understanding of the issues we face. We know more about the players. The barriers to entry aren’t as high. Building relationships with funders that were local and were interested in investing locally is something we could never do before.
IDH: I’m curious if there’s a way in which you’ve institutionalized the learning-from-failure process so that you can continue to acknowledge failure and fail quickly, in a useful way. Have these lessons been infused into your current structure so that should you have to pivot again, you would know how you should go about it?
RF: This experience has informed the way that we structure our offerings and plan for the future. To support the ability to continue to learn from failure and adapt to changing landscapes, we’ve built reflection deeply into our work. This includes doing weekly reflections with our whole staff, building reflection points into our project process, and developing a Yammer site for people to share what they’re learning and where their failures and successes have been. To have an adaptable organization you need constant learning.
IDH: And if there’s one lesson or piece of advice you’d give to anyone trying to find their way in social impact work and overcome the kinds of challenges you’ve faced, what would it be? What’s the most crucial thing?
RF: You need someone that you work with that can be a consistently honest voice. In our group, that’s Kate. She is someone you can always rely on to be honest when something isn’t working and to say, “This can be better.”
All images courtesy of Ramsey Ford and Design Impact.