Non-profits want to work with people, not tell them what to do – but how does that work in practice?

This organization is changing how they work, making their design processes more collaborative with community members

Why It Matters

Social research and development, like R&D in any sector, brings new tools and strategies that can improve people’s lives. As COVID-19 completely disrupts business as usual, there may never be a more important time to reimagine how they work.

Photo: Chris Young

This story is in partnership with Ontario Trillium Foundation.

“Knock Knock,” say the cards hanging on doors in a seniors’ community housing building in Parkdale, west Toronto. Much like “Do Not Disturb” signs in hotels, they tell staff and volunteers from the local non-profit West Neighbourhood House that they should knock to check in and make sure otherwise isolated residents are ok. 

Many of the building’s few hundred senior residents have been worried about isolation, and during COVID-19, those fears have intensified.

This small creative tweak — hanging signs to let staff know they are welcome to check in with the resident — has reassured seniors that people are looking out for them, says Maureen Fair, executive director of West Neighbourhood House, which provides a variety of services to people who are vulnerable, including to many in the Parkdale building. It is characteristic of a more human-centred, community-informed approach the non-profit is working to instill into its services, she says. 

Since 2015, the organization has been experimenting with “social research and development” tools to better-understand two of its target populations, seniors and people who are homeless and co-design projects to empower them. The “Knock Knock” signs were created by a local neighbourhood care team in collaboration with the building’s residents. 

“By just doing to people, you’re contributing to their lack of self-efficacy,” she says. I think we all could be doing more to deepen our inclusion of people we serve into the design of programs.” 

What does taking a co-design approach look like, and how do non-profits and funders know that they are having a tangible impact?


Experimenting with new ideas for frontline services

In recent years, the “social r&d” movement has gained momentum in the social impact sector, where organizations are seeking better social outcomes by changing the ways they work, from altering how they deliver services to completely restructuring their organizations. 

According to a report released earlier this year by Mitacs, Forging the missing link: New evidence towards building capacity for a robust Social R&D ecosystem, there has been an acceleration of experimentation with these methods in Canada since 2010.

West Neighbourhood House’s new approach was introduced by Inwithforward, a social design organization, who studied the needs of local seniors and people who are homeless  in 2015-2016 using what’s called ethnography — in-depth research and analysis of how a population lives in their context.

As well as asking recipients what they need, ethnography allows the organization to get a more complete understanding of the daily barriers people face in order to inform the organization’s interventions.

They then use this data to test new ways of support, from things like improving the perception of people who are homeless amongst local business owners to creating a more calming and welcoming atmosphere in the drop-in centre.

Historically, many social service organizations had to prioritize the physical supports to address the immediate needs of service users, says Sarah Schulman, Inwithforward’s executive director. Too often, she explains, “it is more important that somebody has a pair of socks, even if the way in which I provide those socks is [unintentionally] demeaning or stigmatizing.” With the move towards human centred design, organizations now use a more holistic approach that includes their social, emotional and physical needs in the program design.

Though the social and emotional aspects of service may seem less urgent, Schulman points out there is extensive literature to suggest that human aspects like psychological wellbeing and meaning are directly related to physical health outcomes

“We believe that the welfare state needs to be more human,” continues Schulman, which means finding ways to motivate people to overcome barriers, instead of treating them like “widgets” in a machine. 

What difference does it make?

These new ways of working may sound intuitively positive, but how do non-profits know it’s actually worthwhile? After all, especially since COVID-19, the non-profit and charitable sector has little extra time and resources to spare.

One of the biggest issues is that it is hard to directly connect relationship improvements – like better staff interactions with service recipients or more supportive collaboration with businesses – to results, especially for non-profits embedded in their communities. “How do you attribute [results] to our work as opposed to chance or other external factors?” says Fair.

Fair says West Neighbourhood House has heard positive anecdotal stories of service recipients “feeling like their whole life is being understood better” after more co-designed  interactions. 

But, she points out, they can’t easily prove these changes made the difference, and this puts people in the sector off. “It’s very hard to give concrete outcomes with developmental work,” Fair says. “A lot of funders don’t know how to measure this work.”

It can also be difficult to convince staff of the value of these changes. Especially during COVID-19, staff members find it hard to think beyond those primary needs like food and clothing in order to spend time developing new ways of working.

“It is really tough for our frontline staff, who have so many different things bearing down on them.” Fair says. “There’s a survival mode that does override a lot of other things” 

She says the pushback has often been strong, because of the competing messages that an organization’s leadership need to tell staff members, that “what you’re doing is good, but you need to change.”


A year of opportunity

Photo: Chris Young

In fact, Fair makes no bones about saying that they have fallen short of fully internalizing a co-design  approach. The ethnographic studies and incremental improvements may have shown a way forward, but they’re only at the start of a much longer road.

“These need to be multi-year commitments to really, truly embed this kind of new way of working,” she says. 

Since working with West Neighbourhood House, Schulman says Inwithforward has learned more about the vital role of organizational culture and structure in improving interactions with those they serve. 

Instead of simply building staff members’ skills or trying a few new methods, she says the entire culture of an organization needs to shift to sustain those productive moments. 

“We have to build an entirely new way of thinking about human resourcing, management and accountability,” Schulman says. Such longer-term fixes might include things like alternative spaces for experimentation, hiring for less traditional roles like social scientists or artists, and changing the ways that funders perceive work.

Schulman says the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing organizations to attempt bolder, disruptive change. “The logic about what a service looks like, where a service is delivered, who delivers the service – all of those things are being blown out of the water,” she says. 

Social research and development may have never been more important. “This is the year of disruption,” Shulman says. “In that comes tremendous opportunity to reimagine how our services and systems work.”