Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)



First Advisor

Rod Githens, Ph.D.

First Committee Member

Martin Martinez, Ed.D.

Second Committee Member

Allison Rowland, Ed.L.D.


Nonprofit organizations are faced with unprecedented challenges as they seek to accomplish their lofty missions in a complex environment, ripe with uncertainty. The global COVID-19 pandemic brought forth new problems for communities and workplaces. As a result, some old ways of working may no longer be useful. To make meaningful progress on their social missions while navigating an unfamiliar post-pandemic context, nonprofits need new tools to help them understand and respond to changing community needs. Evidence has shown design thinking to be an effective approach to developing innovative strategies tailored to real needs, however, it has not been widely practiced in the nonprofit sector. Therefore, the purpose of this action research study was to introduce design thinking to one nonprofit organization where new strategies were necessary to effectively support constituents’ evolving needs.

Five action research cycles engaged staff and stakeholders in a design team to apply human-centered design to a real organizational challenge. Research questions sought to understand how design thinking practices were implemented, which attributes contributed to the development of a new strategy, and the ways in which design thinking influenced how the organization responds to evolving constituent needs.

Qualitative data from participant interviews, observation, and focus groups found four themes addressed the research questions: Relevance, Leadership Expectations, Capacity, and Intentionality. By way of engaging in play and inquiry, participants saw design thinking as an opportunity to innovate and adapt, helping nonprofits become more relevant. Findings also revealed expectations for leaders to have the answers may hinder ideation and implementation, though data also suggest leadership communication may be a particularly powerful facilitator of design thinking implementation, providing clarity on organizational priorities and aligning leaders and team members. Capacity, including organizational resources and personal bandwidth, was also found to affect how the design team’s ongoing work was supported and implemented across the organization. Finally, intentionality was revealed through the application of empathy, collaboration, and testing assumptions to aid learning. Such attributes may have already been present, but following design thinking, became intentional practices. Taken together, this also suggests incorporating elements of design thinking may be beneficial for nonprofits, as well as easier to implement than a full design thinking process.

Findings from this study provide insights into what helps and hinders the implementation of a human-centered design practice, based on real experiences of nonprofit practitioners attempting to innovate and adapt to better serve their communities. This study contributes to knowledge regarding how design thinking might impact nonprofit organizations and offers some actionable insights regarding team dynamics, leadership, and facilitation of design practices. Finally, these findings offer practical implications and recommendations for organizations seeking to address longstanding problems in new ways, which may be particularly important in complex times.





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