Design is not just what it looks like and feels like.
Design is how it works.


What is design philanthropy?

To explain, let’s start with the term design thinking. Design thinking is a relatively new concept in business that revolves around taking a human-centered approach to solving problems. This type of thinking was derived by the methods that designers use in their day-to-day creation. The three main pillars of design thinking are:

  1. Empathy — a deep understanding of your customers (alumni and donors)
  2. Ideation — brainstorming
  3. Experimentation — testing it out and innovating

(IdeoU, 2019) Design philanthropy integrates the principles of design thinking with fundraising strategy by seeking to involve donors in the idea phase of their giving.  

Do alumni want design philanthropy?

The short answer: Yes. But who likes a short answer? According to Accenture’s The “Greater” Wealth Transfer report, $14 trillion in wealth is expected to change hands between generations by 2031 with millennials being the core beneficiaries (Accenture, 2015). It is critical that advancement in higher education place a focus on millennials in their engagement strategy not only to sustain their annual fund in the long-term, but because these millennials are their future major gift donors.

Foster (2014) states that current trends are seeing that when it comes to philanthropy, millennials are seeking to be architects in their giving as opposed to passive donors. This means that advancement offices must be seeking new and innovative ways to create this level of involvement for their donors to engage their millennial alumni.

Millennials are the “impact generation”, seeking to solve complex social problems facing the world. Unlike generations before, these alumni are no longer interested in putting their name on a building or giving back to their alma mater purely because it is expected; they want to have tangible, measurable impact (Pfeffer-Merrill, 2018). Design philanthropy presents an opportunity for advancement to develop a deeper empathy for their donors and encourage more active involvement.  

How can I incorporate design philanthropy into my alumni engagement strategy?

There are many different ways to take a design philanthropy approach for alumni engagement, the most important piece is creating a mechanism for your alumni to have a say in their giving (I’m using the term “giving” flexibly to mean a variety of ways of giving back). Here are some of the main areas that present opportunities for a design philanthropy model:

Involvement Opportunities

Design philanthropy is about involvement and what better way to involve your alumni in giving than providing volunteer opportunities. Well-structured involvement/volunteer opportunities that allow your alumni to view the problem first hand can create valuable ideation which can lead to even more valuable engagement. For example, hosting a panel with university researchers, students, faculty, and alumni to discuss an important issue that they are seeking to solve and allowing alumni to give input on the matter. This type of involvement fosters a deep connection to the cause at hand and allows for alumni to be engaged in the decision-making.

Alumni Research

This brings to light the experimentation component of design thinking and how it translates to alumni engagement. Focus groups and alumni interviews allow for alumni to have a voice in giving strategy. Who knows what our alumni want from their philanthropy better than they do? Create opportunities where they can tell you first-hand the issues they are seeking to solve with their giving and their strategic ideas.

Peer-to-Peer Fundraising

The very concept of peer-to-peer fundraising is a design philanthropy model; allowing donors to be in the drivers’ seat of their giving. Alumni themselves are empowered to choose the causes they’re passionate about, define their fundraising goals, and create a strategy to help them reach their goals. Class projects are an awesome form of peer-to-peer fundraising in advancement, one in which I personally don’t feel we promote enough for young alumni looking to have an impact.

With the right approach, design philanthropy can assist advancement in higher education in engaging the next generation of alumni and cultivating them as future, fulfilled donors.


Foster, D. (2014). Millennials Rush In; Social Economy Booms How Millennials Will Change the Face of Philanthropy. Diplomatic Courier, 8:5, 38-40. Retrieved from:

Pfeffer Merrill, J. (2018). Three Ways to Reach Those Elusive Millennial Donors. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 65:7, 25-27. Retrieved from:


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