Combating the Scarcity Mindset in the Nonprofit World

Non-profit organizations live in a world of limitations.

Whether it’s funding, access, resources, or staffing, nonprofits are constantly aware of their limits, especially when tasked with resolving complex issues that create barriers to equity and opportunity for communities.

Because of this constant reminder of limits, professionals within these organizations often develop a scarcity mindset. They begin to see their world as “resource poor”— a place where you hold onto what you have and not rock the boat. The scarcity mindset makes it nearly impossible to innovate and to develop new solutions that can change outcomes for individuals and communities.

How do you get non-profits organizations to think like designers?

Project-centered learning experiences can help nonprofits combat the scarcity mindset. Real-world, project-based learning is essential to Design Impact because of its promise that participants will not just learn something new, but that they’ll make positive movement on a real organizational or community issue while they are learning. This layering of doing and learning creates value now and value later. The ‘now’ value is needed to justify the investment of time to scarcity-minded individuals. The ‘later’ value comes in the form of a perception shift of the individual and team to a new innovation mindset.

A good example of project-based learning for nonprofits is Studio C, our 12-week project incubator for non-profits and community groups. In this program, organizational teams of 2-4 people deeply engage in an issue, creatively explore possible solutions, and make real change. This project-focused learning environment forces participants to learn while doing. And, although learning while doing can be uncomfortable, this approach has proven essential to our programs and partners.

In 2015, Studio C hosted a team from Children, Inc., a regional provider of early childhood educational experiences, that had identified that parent engagement in their centers was a major opportunity to improve outcomes for children. Through Studio C, they engaged dozens of parents and front-line staff to help them generate solutions, and eventually developed a pilot of a highly personalized incentive program, like those in health insurance, for early childhood education. They call it “Launch.” In terms of immediate value from the program the team reported:

“Lots of people are excited to see how this plays out. Parents from other classrooms are already asking when it’s their turn to test out the incentive program. We are proud of our working model. We started Studio C with no real idea, no real goal, but we developed all of that through the process. We genuinely believe the incentive program will be transformative for Children, Inc. and all the families we serve.”

Beyond the direct project impact, the team internalized the program concepts and is now spreading the practice within their organization. Josh Hatton, the team lead, told us that they are using the Studio C concepts “every day.”

“Not only are the skills and strategies we learned in Studio C being used in the implementation of Launch but we are using design thinking strategies in other areas of work as well…future plans include a systematic approach to bringing design thinking to Children, Inc. There will be opportunities in which all staff can attend trainings that will quickly and effectively layout the methods of design thinking. There will also be a focus on project based learning.”

We’ve heard this story repeated over the past few years as we’ve developed our approach to project-based learning. This approach allows scarcity-minded organizations to invest in the development of their staff, creating an innovative or abundant mindset that enables organizations to see opportunity in adversity. At Design Impact we believe that this transition from scarcity to abundance is essential to closing the equity and opportunity gaps that we face as a society. And we believe that real-world, project-based learning is a great way to support this transition.


By Ramsey Ford
Co-founder and Design Director