Good design makes digital programming better — here are four key tips from digital-first non-profits

mindyourmind and Black Futures Now have done the research and development to create successful online programs — here’s what they learned

Why It Matters

COVID-19 has sent much of the social impact world online, forcing non-profits to quickly adapt to a remote reality. But in a sector in which few have the resources to innovate with technology, how can social impact organizations improve how they work online, and find new ways of helping the people they serve?

Photo: Black Futures Now

This story is in partnership with Ontario Trillium Foundation.

When Heather Miko-Kelly first joined the staff of mindyourmind in 2006, a non-profit set up to support youth mental health online, she says many in her field dismissed the idea of digital solutions.

“People working in the field with youth, they didn’t think that the digital world was meaningful or valuable,” says Miko-Kelly, now program manager of the organization in London, Ontario. “Why do we want young people going on the internet more?” they would ask at conferences.

How things have changed. In the years since, work has increasingly moved online – a move further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many social impact organizations accustomed to working in person have been finding ways to redesign their work to be effective online.  

Black Futures Now, a collective of young Black non-binary people and women (cis and trans) engaged in community building in Toronto, has thrived in this new world. Its Mapping Black Futures project has seen participants build a virtual community hub of places of personal significance to the participants and the Black communities to which they belong in the city, in order to create an archive of local Black experiences and a virtual space where young Black people can gather. 

“I’ve always had an interest in how certain digital tools were being used in urban planning in ways that could support communities of colour in the city,” says Adwoa Afful, an urban planner who founded Black Futures Now.

Future of Good spoke to Afful and Miko–Kelly to find out how other non-profits can improve how they work online, and the value of building capacity for online projects.


1) Design and develop projects with those you’re helping

It’s marketing 101, says Miko-Kelly, but for mindyourmind the key principle of effective work online has been knowing their audience. 

“If we want to create relevant tools and resources for young people, then you need to meet them where they are,” she says.

The best way to do that has been developing online resources with young people themselves, in what they call “design labs,” which have been refined over 10 years at mindyourmind.

“We’re not coming to them with an established idea,” she says, but finding what’s most relevant to them and their peers. 

Based on the marketing principles of design thinking – a human-centred, iterative design process used to tackle problems – young people work together with facilitators, content experts and designers to create online tools like apps to support users’ mental health. Before the pandemic hit, this was a three-day workshop weekend but has now gone virtual.

Miko-Kelly says this is an iterative process where they work together to explore, co-create and prototype the tools, and it works best having an intensive period of time working together. “We have found that really diving in and doing this immersive experience is more effective than having it spread out over a lengthy time period,” she says. 

The Be Safe app, for example, was designed by eight youth with personal experience of navigating the mental health system in a crisis. Through a Design Lab, they created a tool to help fellow young adults prepare in the event of a crisis, including a safety plan, a decision-making tool and emergency contacts all in one place. 

Tested and refined in partnership with key actors in the local system, including the London Service Collaborative and The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s regional implementation team, it has now been downloaded 40,000 times (and counting) since 2014 and is continuing to increase across Canada.

By pursuing community-led projects, mindyourmind can stay responsive to what their community wants – and how the needs they respond to can change. “You can hire a graphics company to create something for you, but do they really understand truly what it is that you want?” she says.

For example, in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2018, mindyourmind co-developed an online mental health workbook with youth including things like self-care tips and mood trackers. At the end, the young participants and their peers wanted a hard copy book, too.

“Teenagers are moving back, towards writing notes with a pen and paper,” Miko-Kelly says. “Trends change constantly.”


2) Develop the right skills in your team

Developing these online projects also require finding effective ways to build capacity in the organization. 

In the Mapping Black Futures project, Black Futures Now have been developing their digital map with 11 young, Black participants over a series of meetings, which went online after COVID-19 hit. The idea was to create the space for people with similar experiences to interact and share, Afful says, then “create something tangible out of that,” which could live online as a community.

By grounding the project in those specific experiences, she says they hope the Black communities they aim to reach across the Greater Toronto Area can relate to the work and find ways to apply it to their own lives.

An additional tangible impact, however, was that through this project they could help to expand digital skills among the young people they are working with. Black Futures Now had a tech lead and project coordinator who trained participants in key skills including urban mapping, data visualization, coding, and photography.

“I think wherever there is an opportunity to teach something new and relevant to the communities or individuals you are working with and they are open to it, it’s important to try to facilitate that learning,” Afful says.

She says it not only helped the participants learn the skills to tell their stories in a more compelling way to the intended audience, but gave them a valuable opportunity to begin exploring valuable technical skills.

“The instiutions where these technical skills are often taught or usually very white, very cis, and very male, making it sometimes difficult for anyone who does not fit that description to access those spaces, let alone find community there,” she says.

Miko-Kelly says mindyourmind has made a specific effort to hire people from various professional backgrounds and ages. 

For mindyourmind, this includes web and graphic designers to build the tools, but also creative staff working on digital media, and staff with a background in social work for their mental health supports.

“It’s essential that we have a diverse set of skills brought to our team, as we are small and we are able to develop almost everything in house,” she says. “This allows us to be nimble and respond quickly to development work and partnerships with community organizations.”


3) Make online interactions fun and engaging, including on Zoom

Although their apps live online, both mindyourmind and Black Futures Now had to shift their participant workshops online too when COVID-19 hit. 

“We’re used to working together in a collaborative, open working environment,” says Afful of working internally with the team and running workshops. “It’s forced our staff to become creative as [workshop] facilitators.” 

Afful and Miko-Kelly both recommend finding as many ways as possible to pique people’s interest and make online work sessions more dynamic – even with simple things like using funny backgrounds on Zoom, and playing games during staff meetings on a virtual whiteboard.

“By having fun, it’s not so scary anymore,” Miko-Kelly says. “I’ve been to so many webinars through the pandemic where people didn’t have their cameras on, and they weren’t really engaging in the moment.” 

What used to be intensive processes over a few days with young people, the mindyourmind workshops became weekly for a few hours instead to help people engage more fully.

Black Futures Now made similar changes to their group sessions. They found that regular check-ins on platforms like WhatsApp have helped them sustain more immediate interactions while feeling casual, not overwhelming people dealing with the stress of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Black Futures Now’s Mapping Black Futures app underlines the value of making online tools as engaging and exciting as possible in order to maintain people’s attention digitally, which can be more challenging than through personal contact. 

Afful says the project was designed to create a more permanent reference point for the Black experience in Toronto, which isn’t well-reflected in the physical world which has been mapped by white Canadians. This is called “radical mapping,” where old mapping practices are appropriated for the purposes of underrepresented communities. 

“The internet actually seems to be a much more reliable space for [Black] people to reference than in real-world spaces,” she said. “There’s an irony there.”

The tool was built to be as easy and fun for participants in the community to be involved. The tech lead Singh built an online community centre, including creating ‘rooms’ where participants could engage with the data and each other more directly. 

Each room was designed by participants using data collected for the project, to ‘gamify’ the site and make the site more enjoyable to interact with, as well as present the data in a more approachable way, encouraging users to fully explore their site and project.

“You play it like a video game, but it’s interactive in that anyone can participate – and people can participate at the same time,” Afful says.

“We wanted each interactive element of the site to feel intuitive to the user, which we thought would encourage users to stay on the site longer and learn more about the work,” she says, which included testing the site on team members and making refinements so that the navigation was as easy as possible.


4) Go online with a clear aim, but be flexible

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, Afful says that non-profits must have a clear aim for what they want to achieve online — and not simply become more digital for the sake of it.

For example, through its work this year Black Futures Now has developed a small following and community on social media as more people have heard about the project. 

“It’s really important to first figure out if what you want to do online makes sense online,” she says. “Use online as a tool to further [organizational] goals, rather than just push to do stuff online randomly because we know that’s something we should do.”

However, Afful says that along with clear goals, you have to remain flexible when engaging in digital work.

She points out that they designed much of the program before they had even met the participants, so over time learned how to make improvements – often through trial and error – in terms of what was most valuable and interesting.

“One of the biggest learnings from this experience is that it’s okay if the programming and its goals change based on interest and need,” Afful says.