The Collective Action Toolkit aims to help individuals develop problem-solving skills within their own communities.

The 72-page booklet offers simple, concrete insights into how to build a team, carry out research, and develop solutions.

The CAT has been translated into a number of languages, including Ethiopian and Amharic.

Intentionally,CAT contains nary a mention of design (or brainstorming). Instead, it relies on a simple vocabulary to describe skill sets.

Activities range from Find Issues, Uncover Needs (a guide to doing research in your community) to Lights, Camera, Action! (a guide to putting on skits to pitch solutions to a large group of people).

Each activity ends with a return to a core focus: clarifying your goal, again and again, as your project progresses.

Frog Creates An Open-Source Guide To Design Thinking

How do you teach youngsters in the developing world how to work together to tackle tough problems in their own communities? Frog’s Collective Action Toolkit aims to help.

Brainstorming, whether you believe in it or shun it, is a fantastic neologism. But as Frog Principal Designer David Sherwin has found, it’s also a very American word--one that doesn’t exist in every language. “We were in Bangladesh, trying to translate the idea into Bengali,” says Sherwin, remembering a recent trip his team spent working with teenage girls on community issues. “One of the translators on our team wrote up on the board, brain + storm. It couldn’t be translated.”

Sherwin’s experience touches on a crucial problem for many NGOs and foundations attempting to transpose Western methods of social innovation to other cultures. “These [NGOs] are organizations focused on how to crowdsource design,” says Robert Fabricant, vice president of creative at Frog. “Yet most of the people they’re trying to reach don’t have any pattern for how to collectively approach a problem.”

Today, Frog will release the Collective Action Toolkit, a free, 72-page booklet that seeks to develop a universal framework for people of all ages and cultural backgrounds to tackle big problems in their communities. Developed over the past year, the CAT contains nary a mention of design (or brainstorming). Instead, it relies on a simple vocabulary to describe skills like building a team, carrying out research, and developing solutions. Want to figure out a way to help people in your community eat healthier? Have an idea for a small business? The CAT offers templates for activities to help get the idea off the ground.

Sherwin and Fabricant didn’t set out to build the Toolkit--in fact, it grew out of a separate project that clearly demonstrated its necessity. A team from Frog traveled to Nairobi last year to participate in a Nike Foundation-led initiative called the Girl Effect, aimed at understanding the value of connection amongst girls in impoverished communities. Frog prototyped a phone-based network that sat on top of Twitter, allowing isolated girls create social groups amongst themselves, building communities and friendships, aided by digital technology. “But when we left, the prototype didn’t have an ongoing life,” Fabricant says. The need for such a platform was clear, but only a fraction of the girls had access to phones. “What was relevant to these kids was skill development. What they were seeing and learning was from each other. What they admired were the girls who could get up in front of a room and talk, or feel confident interviewing someone at a church or store in their neighborhood,” he adds.

The Frog team began to wonder if there might be a way to facilitate connectivity and problem-solving skills amongst the girls without the aid of technology or an outside design team. Sparked by their experiences with the Girl Effect, Sherwin and Fabricant began working on a stand-alone resource that could lead anyone, anywhere, through the problem-solving process: the Community Action Toolkit. They found inspiration in their own office, looking at how Frog had tackled problem solving with its clients. “What we’ve seen when we work with startups is that actually, when you start designing, you learn things along the way that change your view of the problem you’re trying to solve,” they explain. So rather than designing a step-by-step list, they created a non-linear toolkit of activities, ranging from Find Issues, Uncover Needs (a guide to doing research in your community) to Lights, Camera, Action! (tips for putting on skits to pitch solutions to a large group of people). Each activity ends with a return to a core focus: clarify your goal, again and again, as your project progresses.

One of the most important insights the team gleaned from their field tests with groups of girls in Africa and Southeast Asia was that girls wanted to get involved in their communities, but felt they needed a pretense to do so. “They wanted something tangible,” says Fabricant. “They wanted badges, certificates where they could sign their names, things like that; symbols that indicate they’re participating in something, not just on their own.” In communities where girls might not have the chance to go to school, talking to a shopkeeper or interviewing a community leader can be a completely overwhelming prospect. “This is where something tangible can make a big difference,” adds Sherwin. “A big part of it is giving girls who might not have a voice in their community some pretext that doesn’t exist to ask a different set of questions.” In the same way that “brainstorming” is an excuse for designers to sit down and argue about ideas, the team hopes that the CAT will give people a framework to self-organize. "I feel more confident than the time I (first) came--I was too shy," says one 14-year-old participant. "Now I’m meeting other girls--I am happy."

After introducing the CAT to a small group of NGO and foundation workers at The Feast in September, the Frog team is making it available to everyone, for free, on their website. "A lot of the people in the foundation space or NGOs that we’ve talked to have been excited by the idea," says Sherwin, "because they don’t have things like this they can provide to communities, and say, ‘when we’re done here, take this and run with it.’"

Check out the Collective Action Toolkit for yourself here.

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24 Comments

  • Robert Fabricant

    Andy:  Thank you for your comment as well. We agree on the importance of knowledge transfer, and it was a major impetus for the Collective Action Toolkit. It is not intended to be prescriptive but additive, in that it provides a creative framework to help institutions and communities put their own knowledge and solutions into collective action. We have plenty to learn in this arena and do not presume to have the answers by a long stretch. Our hope is that the CAT can be a catalyst to help communities unlock additional solutions and engage broader constituencies in problem solving.

  • Stephen Lee

    I appreciate the article. I think the world can use this. Small or Large it doesn't matter. You will always have the "What If" crowd but I think it's needed. I'm happy it's open to everyone.

  • Erik Michielsen

    We have the pleasure of interviewing multiple frogs each year in our aspirational career documentary interview series, Capture Your Flag.  In this video, frog Lauren Serota - @serota:twitter - shares how frog is working in the NGO space, specifically in mHealth in Africa.  I think this is a valuable complement to this article and of course the frog guide to design thinking:

    Here is the Capture Your Flag YouTube video link to Serota answering "How are you applying design techniques to solve problems working with UNICEF on mobile health solutions in Africa?":

    http://youtu.be/69LU9A-tpFQ

  • Margo Dunlap

    Apologies to Mr.
    Fabricant, but “Yet most of the people they’re trying to reach don’t have any
    pattern for how to collectively approach a problem.” is a huge red flag for me.
    The idea that most communities in developing countries have no framework for how
    to solve problems as a group can't be credible. Designer's work in the
    development field exists within a long history of development initiatives,
    which as often as they have been helpful, have been meddlesome, condescending,
    exploitative, and destructive. They also have a bad habit of privileging the
    voice of the outsider over traditional knowledge. I often worry that as a new
    industry on the international development scene, design is overlooking much of
    the hard-earned knowledge about how to be respectful and helpful in less
    developed communities. That said, it seems like a lot of the work and insights
    could be very valuable. 

  • Robert Fabricant

    Thank you for commenting, Margo. I just want to clarify that as designers we're very conscious of the long history of international development, and we approach this kind of work with humility and respect for all concerned. The Collective Action Toolkit was directly inspired by the innate problem-solving and social skills we observed among young women in these communities, skills that are not always encouraged. Hopefully this toolkit strengthens those capacities by giving girls (as well as other community members) additional patterns for collective action that complement traditional community organizing. I think you are right that I overstated this point in the interview with fast company and appreciate your honet feedback. The toolkit is not intended to replace existing systems, processes, or customs, but to provide a creative framework anyone can use to activate their own problem-solving and community organizing skills. 

  • Guest


    Thumbs up. Collective action and brainstorming have existed as a part of the traditional way in India at least, where community problems would be addressed together in 'panchayats' (which was the inspiration for Gandhi's idea of self governing village units). 

  • Jheney1

    What really worried about is that what will happen when everybody will get educated and rich/wealthy ? who is going to serve who. US/EU/Arab/Canada ....are already facing worker/labor crises !!  developing country who came in and do all the odd Job !? Do we have any solution to this ! ?
    Every Human has right to get education and live well !

  • Andy

    I would vehemently agree.  What percentage of villagers have ever solved a problem effectively.  100%  What percentage of designers have ever lived for more than a couple days in a hut with no shoes and no electricity?  Maybe a handful?  Even experienced organizations like World Bank are still learning what works and what doesn't with regards to assisting the developing world - and plenty of them have these collaborative design skills.  Overgeneralizing here, but the best approaches often find the solutions that are already in use somewhere, and help to transfer that knowledge to others. Maybe there's a design perspective for that.

  • Themousekeeper

     I'm not sure the author understands what open-source means... Otherwise, great idea!

  • Blake Lough

    Love the idea and just like the IDEO initiative it is great to see the design community giving back to the wider community. I would be really interested to know if there have been any issues with materials, namely post-its as I notice most photos have a local group gathered round clusters of post-its. How accessible are these really in these communities and what alternatives are they using. 

  • —kw

    Looks an awful like IDEO's HCD connect toolkit... See it for yourself, you guys.

  • waooneilio

    this give the impression that people haven't been working on this before, which really isn't true. there are tons of successful development cooperation professionals out there that have been working on these processes for decades - and their stuff is, mind you, always free. since i didn't see where their efforts might have been aligned with any existing development agencies or consultants, it smacked of reinventing the wheel with shinier hubs...for example, check out http://www.km4dev.org/ for excellent exchanges and resources. and there are a lot of others out there... the positive thing is, frog concentrates on connecting human interaction processes with design which is sorely needed - uptown and downtown. humankind has proven over and over again that new gadgets, software and apps often don't work outside the culture that generated them.

  • Andy

    Seems like a nice piece of work, and great that you are making it available free.

    Desperately needs a proof-reading, however.  There are many inconsistencies in the labels ("Build your team" vs "Build your group", "Imagine new ideas" vs "Imagine more ideas"), as if the overview graphic were designed separately from the content.