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.