Blog Post

October 24, 2012 Krista Donaldson

Thinking about a career in design and social impact? Here are some resources.

We get a lot of inquiries at D-Rev about the type of work we do, how we got started—and how to get into the field of design for social impact. We’re thrilled with the interest by so many motivated and talented people, and thought it would make sense to list some of our collective lessons learned and recommended resources. So this represents not just my opinions (although you can blame me for bad ones), but all of D-Rev’s staff (we had a brainstorm).

Social Sector

With everything and everyone recommended below, we have first—or nearly firsthand—experience. Keep in mind that our focus is on populations where people live on less than $4 a day, therefore most of our recommendations pertain to those users, customers and markets. And like good designers—we want to acknowledge our biases: D-Rev has an orientation based on our individual and organizational experiences (see Our team for everyone’s backgrounds), with a good dose of (North American) West-Coast/Silicon Valley/design-thinking ethos thrown in. This also is far from comprehensive—so if you have recommendations based on your experience, please add your comments.


Garrett testing a electro-surgery unit in Honduras as part of Engineering World Health in 2009.

We recommend:

1. Get familiar with the space. Organizations have varying missions, personalities, track records and cultures. Besides websites, there are various other resources you can pull to learn more about organizations and social innovation as a field. Specifically with organizations, consider:

  • Impact: What is an organization’s reported impact? Is the impact actually impact or is it really demographics about users? If the organization is young, it may not yet have reportable impact—but how are they thinking about it? This is usually on a website and in annual reports. In terms of what we mean by impact—the best resource there we think is Kevin Starr’s PopTech talk: Lasting Impact

  • Culture: At D-Rev, our focus is on producing the best possible products for our customers, strengthening markets and giving users choice—in some ways a very Silicon Valley approach. Our culture is a tech startup or design group—not so much a typical NGO or nonprofit. How to get a sense of an organization’s culture? Good indicators are an organization’s (and staff’s) twitter feeds, or if the organization has a Facebook page and blog. To get a sense of the leadership and how the organization thinks, look for TED or TEDx talks by CEOs and founders. (As a sidenote, keep in mind that smaller organizations and those of us still in startup mode don’t post as much as we’d like given bandwidth.)

  • Structure: Consider if you want to work for a non-profit, for-profit or hybrid. Naturally, at D-Rev we are biased toward non-profits because that structure allows us to prioritize long-term sustainable and scalable impact—but there are real trade-offs with each. If you are considering working with a US-registered non-profit or foundation, you can look at the organization’s 990 (tax filing). Transparent organizations tend to post them directly on their websites, but you can (usually) find them through Guidestar or googling the name of the organization and “990”.

  • Tools: Any user-centric design exposure and application. For great hands-on tools: Human-Centered Design Toolkit. The thing to keep in mind though is that users are far from homogenous and not all design tools work in all cultures or use settings. Design is about creating, but it is more about solving problems—and we are big believers in integrating the business, delivery and any servicing models into product development as early as possible.

To learn more about social innovation as a field, dig into:

  • The bigger picture: Garrett Spiegel, our R+D engineer, recommends reading about and researching international aid and social impact work in order to develop your own philosophies on aid and design. Says Garrett: “If you are like me [an engineer] you didn’t read books and take classes through school.”

  • Customers: Jayanth Chakravarthy, who leads our neonatal jaundice work, recommends having a regional or topical focus that aligns with your work interest. For example, if you are most interested in Indian markets, be plugged into India-related groups, news and organizations. Sara Tollefson, our Director of Impact, volunteered with the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York while in law school, and this led her to work on transitional justice issues in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

  • The history: Social innovation as a concept actually isn’t so new—it has benefited from lessons of the early days of foreign and domestic aid, the era of “structural adjustment”—and above all the “Appropriate Technology” movement. It pains us to see reinvention of the wheel and the same mistake made for the n-th time (although we—sigh—do that too.) From our perspective, the early movers in social innovation were Practical Action (formerly ITDG, started by E.F. Schmuacher who is credited with starting Appropriate or “Intermediate Technology”), International Development Enterprises (IDE) and KickStart (formerly ApproTEC). We will likely post a list of recommended readings soon—so stay tuned for that.

Sara Tollefson

Sara meeting with a chief in Makeni, Sierra Leone, in 2003 as part of her work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (The chair was given to him by Queen Elizabeth!)

2. Get field experience. Field experience to us is working directly with users and customers in their environment long enough that some of your preconceived notions have been turned upside down. It also helps you figure out if this is the type of work you really want to do—and be more hirable.


Jenny as a Kiva Fellow visiting a group of women borrowers in Kisumu, Kenya, in 2010. These women were part of a group of 15 farmers and bag weavers.

  • If you are a university student:

    • Take classes that give impact-minded international exposure. Our favorites are Design for Extreme Affordability in the at Stanford (Samuel Hamner, our design engineer, is an alum, and I teach in it), and Kara Palamountain’s Global Health Initiative course at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of management (D-Rev Business analysts and advisors Marney Binns, Amy Schellpfeffer and Dorothy Zhuomei are alums of). Garrett was a program associate at Rice, and coached teams from the Global Health Technologies minor (see Rice 360).

    • Student competitions. Sam suggested BPC (Biz Plan Competitions) with a database of social innovation business plan competitions. The ReMotion Knee won Stanford BASES Social-E Challenge and UC-Berkeley’s Global Social Innovation Challenge.

    • Extracurriculars. When hiring, we look for strong involvement in social organizations. In undergrad (yes, eons ago), I was active in Vanderbilt’s Alternative Spring Break program—my good friend, Mike MacHarg, a co-founder of Simpa Networks, was also an active ASBer way back when.

    • Mix it up. More and more schools are offering great new and interdisciplinary class and programs, but we think all policy, international development, and language experiences are a great mix with a technical degree.


Sam took Stanford’s Extreme class in 2009. His team worked with IDE-Ethiopia.

3. Get networked. There are resources available if you have an internet connection already. We like keeping up with the nuances in our and related fields through Twitter and blogs.


Get up and go to:

  • An exhibit: There are several museum-style exhibits on design and social innovation: the Cooper-Hewitt’s Design for the Other 90%, and the Autodesk Gallery’s Public Interest Design (San Francisco).

  • A function: It can be difficult for smaller organizations like ours to host visitors, but you should be on the look out for organizations having Open Studios or fundraisers. Those functions—usually a few times a year—are a great way to meet staff and learn more about an organization’s work (and be sure to donate—even a small amount!).

4. Be flexible. You probably already know this, but a few things to be aware of when thinking about joining the social sector:

  • The salaries in social enterprises aren’t (yet) comparable to the private sector—or even the public sector. We hope that changes; we would love to see good work earn market-par salaries.

  • Volunteering to an organization isn’t free—we, of course, love smart and talented people contacting us and saying they have a funding to work with us pro bono. We’ll still put you through our hiring process—in addition to ensuring you have a great experience, we want to make sure you are a strong and productive member of our team.

  • The longer you can commit to working and the more flexible you can be in the type of work you do (well), the more likely you’ll find a great match!

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