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Designing Philanthropy Beyond Disasters


Published on August 27, 2019

Author: Mariely Rivera-Hernández

In 2017 Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were hit by two powerful hurricanes that destroyed our islands and ripped our daily routines, putting down basic resources like power, water and communications. After more than 20 months of Maria’s thrashing, we are still on recovery mode, and are beginning to face stagnating problems; a weak and disconnected public health system, an unreliable oil-dependent electric system that has failed to integrate renewable energy generation, and rampant crime that is symptomatic of a prolonged mental health crisis. Many hands have been on deck providing relief and helping with the recovery, but many more are still needed.


Part of the strong initial response to the disaster has come from the many community based organizations in our Island. Puerto Rico has a vibrant non-profit sector with over 11,500 organizations. The most recent study on the Island’s nonprofits, entitled Non-Profit Organizations in Puerto Rico (2015) and published by the consulting firm Estudios Técnicos, confirms that 7 out of 10 of these organizations are actively engaged in public policy formulation. Also, that 40% form part of long-term alliances with both private and public entities. And, that 1 out of 5 has formal agreements with local and federal government to offer their services. The majority of these non-profits are dedicated to common charitable causes; education, health, homelessness, aging, poverty, etc.


Nonprofits providing services to the public are often supported by individuals and private foundations, including family, community and corporate foundations. A recent study entitled Giving in Puerto Rico (2016), commissioned by the Flamboyán Foundation and the Kinesis Foundation, to the prestigious Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University established, that giving is very common in Puerto Rico and that 3 out 4 households report making donations every year. The report also shows that 53% of the population donates to non-profits that focus on issues within our territory; the greatest concerns being education, health and the economy. The causes receiving the most donations are basic needs, faith-based initiatives, and health.


However, challenges to connecting giving to services needed for disaster relief and recovery hint at a need for transformation in the Island’s philanthropy culture. Recent experiences in the U.S. show that applying design thinking is one way to effectively increase impact, and make funding strategically focused. A design exercise helps establish priorities, and remind givers and services providers, that the people served should always be at the center of processes, no matter how audacious the challenge.


According to Nadia Roumani, Director of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (“d.school”), there are five fundamental steps foundations and non-profits need to take to benefit from design thinking:


  1. Identifying users and uncovering the deep, often implicit and underlying needs;

  2. Using a process of defining the opportunity hypothesis for point of view or problem statement;

  3. Ideating, or generating, developing, and testing ideas;

  4. Prototyping low-resolution (s) to defined point of view;

  5. Testing and iterating on the solution until there is proven impact.


Romaini emphasizes that design thinking is a powerful tool that helps apply a disciplined, scaffolded process in developing solutions to messy problems, establishing effective organizational or programmatic strategies, increasing creativity and innovation, and improving the internal organization and team culture.


A perfect storm is hitting Puerto Rico; a massively indebted territory of the U.S., a country hindered by its political and economic status; and a citizenry that is suffering the impact of the 4th most devastating natural catastrophe seen in the United States. However, it also gives Puerto Ricans a chance to put into practice experiences learned from the devastation brought on by Katrina, Sandy and Harvey; solving the right problems; improving service providers’ processes and culture; and most importantly, accelerating effective giving and grantmaking. We urgently need to encourage greater creativity and innovation in engagements between non-profits and foundations.


In studying creativity and innovation, Dr. Tony Wagner, author of the national bestseller Creating Innovators, interviewed many entrepreneurs and quotes one of the interviewees, Annmarie Neal, of CISCO’s Center for Collaborative Leadership, saying: “Incremental innovation is about significantly improving existing products, processes, or services. Disruptive or transformative innovation, on the other hand, is about creating a new or fundamentally different product or service that disrupts existing markets and displaces formerly dominant technologies”.


This remark struck a strong cord with me. Puerto Rico needs a big leap forward. Let’s make our contribution by designing and acting on disruptions that can transform philanthropy and giving. Let’s make innovation our priority and we can help our Island overcome this disaster, and strengthen its social and economic fiber along the way.


The author is an experimented non-profit changemaker, and an advocate for innovative education for communities.

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