Designing a Better Way to Donate

In the past 20 years industries from automobiles to news and communication have seen themselves disrupted as science fiction is brought to life through emerging technologies like blockchain and AI, on the verge of surpassing the Turing test. However on a parallel timeline, the not-for-profit and charitable sector has experienced very little of this structural and technological innovation despite its equally ambitious mandates around education, hunger, disease, and economic empowerment.

I remember back to high school when my Rotary club ran a food drive. By the end of one month we had collected a sizable assortment of donations. While a few products had expired, similar to the clothing, school supply, and book drives I had participated or helped organize, something about the process felt piecemeal and indirect. I had a desire to help, yet at the same time, I sensed an uncomfortable dignity disconnect between myself and those on on the receiving end. In-kind donations have always been around as a common giving model, but the “hand-out” or “leftover” mentality sometimes means a lack of choice for individual preferences, needs, and in the case of food – dietary restrictions. This need mismatch also means that often, only a fraction of what gets donated actually reaches a recipient. On the organizational side, the was a significant cost and dependency on organization, storage, and transportation with a large inventory of physical goods.

Food Bank
Spotted: “Not a Garbage” sign on a donation bin. Perhaps symbolic of underlying attitudes toward physical donations?

To begin my Stretch Experience, I first sought to understand different behaviours and attitudes about donations. I started by talking to 20 people and learning about their experiences. The common pain points I heard included a lack of transparency as to where a donation goes and its measured impact; the need to physically collect and drop off items; and lack of awareness of all the causes and ways to support them. In those discussions, thematic, was an overall desire to give more effectively and conscientiously.

I also met with members from EndPoverty Edmonton and Edmonton’s Food Bank. In those meetings I learned more about the different stakeholders and the unique angles through which they understood the scope of of poverty alleviation as a system, as well as the magnitude of the problem here in the city – there are over 100,000 people currently living in poverty in our city, 40,000 of whom are children. Annually, the consequences of this costs Edmonton a staggering $7 billion each year to manage. While I had previously seen the food bank as a donation centre, in having the opportunity to tour the facility, I learned more about the Food Bank’s work as a food waste diversion and management system that serves over 20,000 Edmontonians each month – through food hampers alone with help from a large network of volunteers and expansion into new ways of helping and engaging the community through education and events.

This made me start thinking of a more effective structure to reimagine in-kind donations. To do this, I challenged myself to think bigger using the 7 Star Design exercise. If people were going to leave a Google review of a donation experience, what would it look like at its lowest and highest points? Here’s what I came up with:

1 Star – Remote drop-off location with and limited items to donate that end up in the trash.

3 Star – Few drop off locations and delay in time the recipients gets what they need, no follow-up.

5 Star – Donate online or in-person directly to those in need in real-time based on what they need, learn about impact, story, and connect to a variety of causes.

A 1 Star experience is so terrible, you would be compelled to never do it again. A 3 Star experience is less than ideal, but starting to take shape. 5 Stars delivers a positively impactful experience. In fact, there are a few organizations that have reached this standard. Now to go a step further…

7 Star – Get to know someone, understand what their needs and concerns are and build a plan around the gaps to help provide for themselves while creating a network of community members to champion them with skills training, education, and other tangible and intangible resources. Follow through and follow-up over the course of a year to measure progress and use data to determine what worked and what didn’t as learning, while anonymously sharing the story.

This would be a WOW. And I could take it a step further to 9 Stars, then 11 Stars. The point of breaking the 5 Star scale is to start thinking exponentially about a predominantly social issue, the same way we think about self-driving cars and robo-assistants. Even though not everything will be immediately feasible or even scalable, it presents the catalyst for breaking out of routine thinking and design back from in order to build new expectations and experiences that go beyond settling for “good enough”.

I have volunteered and fundraised with several organizations with a international and local focus, and now more than ever, the social impact sector is in need of new ways of tackling centuries-old problems – right here at home. My focus these next upcoming months presents many challenges and unknowns, but will undoubtedly stretch me outside of what can be brushed off as “someone else’s problem”, by looking for disguised opportunities to create and realize the next science social fiction.

– Christina Luo

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