Looking to Do More Social Good, IDEO Launches a Non-Profit Arm

The move will allow IDEO to capture more foundation funding when working on social-good projects.

Looking to Do More Social Good, IDEO Launches a Non-Profit Arm

You’re in tall cotton when business is so good you need to launch a non-profit to keep up with it. That’s the word from Palo Alto powerhouse IDEO, which announced today that it would spin off a genuine 501c3 corporation to handle its social innovation practice.


As a non-profit,, which will officially launch in the fall, will be in a better position to get grants from foundations whose rules make working with for-profit companies difficult.

“Foundations are typically not set up to engage with for-profit companies,” says Patrice Martin, who leads the company’s social innovation practice and will be lead the new enterprise with Jocelyn Wyatt (pictured above, respectively). They weren’t prohibited legally, she says, “but the due diligence required made it difficult. With this model, we’ll now be able to leverage what we’re doing to do this work at scale.”

IDEO has long championed the human-centered design approach in its social impact practice, teaming with the Gates Foundation on a project to provide safe drinking water in impoverished countries, partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation and others on VisionSpring, a system for delivering affordable eye care to families; and developing its own Human-Centered Design Toolkit, a guide to the design process for NGOs and other social enterprises.

[One of IDEO’s recent social-good ventures, with the Acumen Fund]

The new organization will aim to work in three different ways: partnering with non-profits to design solutions to problems in the areas of health, agriculture, water and sanitation, financial services, and gender equity; using open innovation platforms and social networking to share insights on best practices; and launching a year-long “future leaders” fellowship program that will pair fellows from the developing world with selected IDEO staffers.

Projects themselves will have to meet a rigorous set of standards: they’ll have to be aimed at low income communities across the globe, be funded by a non-profit enterprise, and deliver tangible results — a real product, service, or system that will directly benefit the community it targets.


“By September, we hope to have seven fellows in place,? says Jocelyn Wyatt, who will co-lead the project. Four of the slots will go to applicants from outside IDEO; the other three will be current IDEO staffers who apply to spend a year working on non-profit projects. Applications for these positions will be posted on the site.

Perhaps most significantly, given recent criticism about the developed world’s occasionally inept solutions to impoverished countries? problems, the program plans to have a team in place to monitor and evaluate the projects? success.

“There will be a huge emphasis on understanding impact,” says Wyatt. ‘We’ll conduct pre-project baseline surveys, do post-project evaluations, and bring in academics or other third parties for analysis of the results.’ The goal, she says, is for the fellows ultimately to “return to their careers with ownership of the human-centered design process.”

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.