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Prototyping in Practice: How Designing Effective Social Services Begins and Ends with People

Metcalf Innovation Fellow Sarah Schulman and her organization InWithForward are driven by a singular idea: that effective social service design begins and ends with people.

It’s a deceptively simple concept. Their “Grounded Change” philosophy promotes a thorough understanding of a target audience — which includes their physical and emotional needs, their environments, and their motivations. This understanding isn’t based on assumptions around the needs of certain “types” of people; it’s gleaned from spending large amounts of unstructured time with individuals, then using this information to rapidly prototype solutions that incorporate their ongoing feedback.

Through her Innovation Fellowship, Schulman brought together 23 non-profit leaders and policy makers for the Learning Circle, a biweekly, six-month opportunity for participants to learn to apply the Grounded Change values and strategies in their work. They identified challenges within their organizations (referred to as “pain points”), tested their assumptions on the people affected by these challenges, and designed and evaluated new prototype solutions that could more effectively meet their audiences’ needs.

For example, when The Stop Community Food Centre began the Learning Circle, they believed their “pain point” was that many women who use their drop-in centre felt unsafe. Open-ended conversations with the women in question revealed that safety concerns really weren’t issues for them; that they’d actually prefer to access more family-centric programming outside of the drop-in environment. With this information, The Stop was able to design a new family support group, and used the Grounded Change approach to continually test which elements of their program were proving useful for their participating parents.

Metcalf’s Inclusive Local Economies program benefited immensely from our participation in the Learning Circle. Our pain point was uncertainty around how to most effectively strengthen connections between our grantees working within the social services sector. We held eight conversations with grantees from different organizational sizes, designed our recent Inclusive Local Economies symposium as a prototype opportunity, and are using feedback from the event to inform our future program and partnership development.

Learning Circle Prototypes

Photo: Demo-Day: Kevin Konnyu

Posters outlining the teams’ prototypes were displayed during Demo-Day, the Learning Circle’s graduation ceremony.

Linked below, each 3-page PDF briefly summarizes their activities and insights as they designed, delivered, and evaluated their projects:

family Service Toronto From Waiting to Living: Finding New Ways to Support People on the Waitlist

Habitat services Engaging Engagement: Creating Moments for Meaningful Conversations

West Neighbourhood House and the Metcalf Foundation Network Expedition: From Convening Organizations to Clustering Common Themes

East scarborough storefront Walking the Tightrope: A Balancing Act Between Innovation and Reality

North york community house Closing the Service Gap: Designing New Supports for Middle-Aged Kids in Lotherton

Cancer Care Ontario Public Engagement Demystified: Shifting from Outside to Inside Voices

The Stop community food centre Get Off the (Fucking) Table: Shifting from a Safety to Engagement Paradigm

judi snively and laura harper Lifting the Food Bank Experience: From Food Banks to “More” Banks

ministry of children and youth services A Window into the Lives of Middle Years Children and their Families: Policy Conversations Made Personal

abc life literacy Round Pegs in Square Holes? Square Pegs in Round Holes? Applying Design Methods to the Learning Circle

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