• Non-profit business design: the human side has to come first  

    Non-profits are in a really stomping mad, unfair place.

    Our nonprofit partner, Homebridge, has a design problem that is terribly, incredibly unfair: monetizing what they do to support the parts of their mission that will never be profitable. For years, they’ve tackled providing home care for some of the most in-need senior citizens in the Bay Area — the ones with serious mental health issues, living in poverty, with no support system while they are suffering from the sorts of illnesses that makes one dependent on another human being for basic needs. Unlike those of us who simply fear getting older and not being able to take care of ourselves but have some retirement money set aside,  Homebridge serves those seniors who fall off the edge of a traditional supply/demand curve. They don’t have the means to pay for services they desperately need. Our current era is making it ever harder for Homebridge to do the right thing: cuts to public funding, rising senior populations, and historically low levels of community participation make caring for seniors in poverty an even trickier endeavor. But Homebridge is scrappy, mission-driven, and exploring ways to build a for-profit wing of their enterprise that fits within the scope of their mission yet could still help support their core work.

    Fortunately, as designers, we love unfair places. As designers, we solve problems. Not just neat ones in nice boxes, but wicked ones and unfair ones.

    As designers, we see uneven, unfair circumstances in the world, along with weird value exchanges — and we see opportunity for innovation. For those of us in the corporate world, BarnRaise has been an excellent opportunity to flex those problem-solving mental muscles. Their mission is noble and user-centered. They want to start solving problems in our favorite place: by considering the user-centered case first. With Homebridge’s desire to think about new models of nonprofit funding for senior care, I admit to having a special interest since I understand that the problem we are to tackle isn’t just about money. It has a large component of social exchange. I know, because I’ve benefited from the experience of caring for a senior myself.

    In one of life’s meandering paths that led me to being a designer, I worked as the hiring manager at a senior home care agency. There was a particularly hard client to staff (I’ll call her Rose) who was suffering from a severe case of lupus. She didn’t have a lot of money and could only afford a caregiver for an hour and a half each day. Even though it wasn’t my official job, I visited Rose often. I was paid to do it, but It wasn’t something I did for the money. There were much easier ways to earn cash than by feeding and bathing a rather miserable lady who was suffering from lupus. I did it because visiting Rose taught me about compassion and the depths of my ability to care for another human being. The work was the hardest I’ve done, but inexplicably rewarding — a message we hear over and over from Homebridge’s caregivers, too. One day, I was washing Rose’s legs so we could re-bandage a sore. Rose snapped, “Why are you being so gentle? The other people are much rougher when they help me.” It broke my heart, thinking that other caregivers Rose had may really have been only doing it for the money, brusquely completing their tasks as quickly as possible, not tapping into the wellspring of compassion and humanity to be unleashed when taking care of someone who is sick and dying. In this particular value exchange, everyone was getting robbed.

    Businesses have entered the era of mashed-up social and monetary exchanges. Can nonprofits do it, too?

    One of the big questions I have going into BarnRaise weekend is how might we amplify the role of the social exchange when we are designing a monetary exchange for Homebridge? Modern businesses like AirBnB and Lyft leverage the sharing economy as the centerpiece of their brand identity and the way they deliver value. Staying in a person’s house or getting into a stranger’s car requires trust and the building of a sharing economy where politeness, quality of service, and uniqueness add value on top of having a place to sleep or getting a ride home. How might we use what they are doing to combine the monetary aspect of running a successful business and social aspect of creating a culture that has very little to do with money?

    For designers who spend most of our time designing at for-profit companies, what lessons can we learn from Homebridge’s social exchanges, and how human and important it is to care for another human being? What are the consequences of designing models that ignore it?  When we write marginalized user populations out of our business plans, are we missing an opportunity to create a more valuable social exchange? Are we missing opportunities to innovate on our product portfolios as a whole, making them better for everyone? Should we all, like Homebridge, be starting with the human problem instead of the profit model? Can Homebridge’s robust social exchange be used not only to sustain the work of their core mission, but provide quality care and caring for the rest of us?

    Join us at BarnRaise to help answer some, if not all, of these questions.
    Beth Schwindt, UX Researcher, Capital One. Beth once used her keen skills of observation to win fifth prize in the Meat and Meat Cuts Judging competition at the Dane County, WI Fair — as a vegetarian.

    There are 2 thoughts on this idea

    1. Meg Kurdziolek

      I love everything about this piece, especially the final parting question: “Should we all, like Homebridge, be starting with the human problem instead of the profit model?”

      I find that with a number of my for-profit clients that a lot of them look to established profit models that other companies use and try to shoe-horn themselves into the same fit. Unfortunately, those typically look like costly subscription models (or worse, ads).

      I think it takes a lot of bravery on the part of for-profit businesses to look for unique, tailored business models in line with the ideal user experience, because it means they wont have an “easy” answer when it comes to seeking investor questions about monetization. For my part, I try to argue that business models and product design are all part of the big bucket we call “user experience” and you can’t expect to deliver value if you’ve neglected any facet of it.

    2. ben colman

      When things in life go wrong, we want, maybe need someone to help us out – just treating us like we’re valued, and not a problem, can help us feel better about ourselves and better manage whatever has gone wrong. We often know this from personal experience, but forget it in our professional life. Giving people the tools to do more online is fine, but we’ve also got to give people the self-belief that they can do these things for themselves and also we’ve got to recognise that at a point of crisis, we all still tend to reach out for another hand or voice.

      Providing a quality human interaction, in the profit sector I guess can lead to increased brand loyalty. In the non-profit sector, we can probably reduce whole system costs by supporting people to do more for themselves, building their self-confidence so they can look after themselves better, reducing or delaying their need for more expensive services.

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