Ernest Beck | Report

Catapult Design: How to Run a Design Firm for Social Change

Wind turbine developed by Catapult Design with Engineers Without Borders–USA for manufacture and use in Guatemala. Photos courtesy Catapult Design

Though Catapult Design, a small, nonprofit studio in San Francisco, was founded in January 2009, it's already helped to electrify seven rural health clinics in Rwanda that serve 120,000 people. In Guatemala, it's working on developing a low-cost wind turbine. And in Tanzania, it's involved in an off-the-grid LED lighting project.

Despite these early achievements, Heather Fleming, Catapult’s chief executive, says it’s too early to celebrate the firm’s success or its business model as a design studio focused on social change. “The question is, how do you pull this off financially in the long term?” she asks.

That’s a crucial question for any design studio, but especially for one with revenue of $59,800 last year, of which 66 percent was from donors and a mere 8 percent was earned income (the remainder was in-kind support). In a field in which large, for-profit design businesses like IDEO, Frog and Continuum do much of the heavy lifting, Catapult’s nonprofit model offers a new way to think about how designers can engage social innovation projects. As design for social change becomes more widely known and funding opportunities increase, these issues are taking on greater importance. So far, however, “everyone realizes there is a huge opportunity but no sustainable model yet,” says Mariana Amatullo, director of DesignMatters, an NGO based at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

Design for social change is currently taking place on many levels. A few school-based organizations like DesignMatters deploy students and faculty in its projects; Design that Matters, a nonprofit low-cost design firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that grew out of MIT’s Media Lab relies on volunteers in academia and industry. 

LED-powered lamps (pictured with inferior and dangerous paraffin lamp). Catapult is assisting nonprofit Dissigno to determine which model should be distributed in Tanzania.

Architecture firms, or individual practitioners, take on pro-bono work for projects such as post-Katrina housing or emergency shelters; designers are involved with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Architecture for Humanity, AIGA or Design21: Social Design Network, which have projects in the field or sponsor competitions. Large companies like Netherlands-based Philips are also engaged. Last year’s Aspen Design Summit brought together designers, foundations and NGOs to discuss six social-impact initiatives.

But for the most part, it’s the big earners of the design industry that have the staff and financial depth to devote to long-term design-for-social-change projects that involve substantial amounts of time and resources. These projects are taken on for full or reduced fees or done pro-bono on a case-by-case basis, and are often supported by foundations, nonprofits, for-profits and governments. (Continuum, for example, donates about 1 percent of annual revenues to pro-bono programs.) The incentive is not profit, because these are not money-making operations, so the reward goes beyond typical return on investment. “Why do we do this work? Because we can’t imagine not doing it,” explains Anna Muoio, who leads Continuum’s social innovation initiative. “We are finding increasingly that young design talent cares and wants to work at a place where they can feel and see the impact they have in the world.” Adds Robert Fabricant, who heads Frog’s design-for-impact initiatives: “The general model will pay for itself in marketing and awareness and recruiting and good will with employees and clients and generating positive leads.”

Catapult’s mission is to help disadvantaged communities in developing countries, and its clients so far are typically small nonprofits, grassroots nonprofits in developing countries, or U.S.-based nonprofits working in developing countries, as well as for-profit social enterprises. Fleming, who co-founded Catapult with Tyler Valiquette, says the idea grew out of her work for the organization Engineers Without Borders, where she led a volunteer group focused on humanitarian design projects. But that eventually became frustrating, Fleming explains, because “the volunteer model sucks. It serves the volunteer not the client.” The goal for Catapult is for all clients to hire the firm and pay for services, although in its start-up phase that’s not always the case: for the Rwanda electrification project, Fleming did the energy assessment for free, with the client paying travel and logistical costs, because, she explains, “the project offered a distinct advantage to Catapult’s knowledge base. We wanted to learn about solar.”

Working with the Inhangane Project, Catapult is helping to install photovoltaic systems to electrify medical clinics in Rwanda.

One advantage of Catapult's nonprofit status is that it allows nonprofit clients to integrate the design firm's proposals into their own grant applications. “It’s like a stamp of approval,” Fleming says. Being small and community-focused and experienced in developing countries also helps attract business. Dr. Wendy Leonard, who heads the Ihangane Project — the initiative in Rwanda to electrify health clinics — says she was impressed by Catapult's “specific experience in resource-limited settings” and its “acknowledgment that small-scale projects are significant.”

Yet Catapult’s nonprofit business model might be expanded or enhanced, Fleming says, acknowledging that design-for-social-change firms might consider a hybrid organizational structure. Because nonprofits can own for-profits, Fleming doesn’t rule out Catapult's spinning off a for-profit unit if, for example, it works on a wind turbine that becomes scalable and decides to turn that into a commercially viable product. She also wants to diversify Catapult’s portfolio to include medium- and large-size clients and to lessen its current lopsided reliance on donors: “In general, we tell people we’re a nonprofit aspiring to be a for-profit, because, for the most part, we function like a for-profit design firm.”

Another way forward is the NewDesign concept, an idea developed by Continuum and Larry Keeley, a partner at Doblin/Monitor, to create a nonprofit entity that matches for-profit design firms with foundations to engage in high-impact social-change projects at reduced fees. Like Catapult’s model, NewDesign is one of many efforts to address some of the fundamental issues in advancing design for social change, including funding and how to maximize resources and talent and make the social-innovation sector more appealing for a wider array of business and organizations. Overall, says Continuum’s Muoio, “the challenge is to create a business model that is viable and demonstrates the value of this work.”

Posted in: Business, Social Good

Comments [14]

Thanks for the interesting write-up. Readers may be interested in a list of over 60 non-profit using design for social change up at:

Very interesting article, I've just finished my degree and it genuinely shocked me how many students don't seem to have any interest in social change; it's heartening to know that some design talent is directed towards important causes.


Great to see this piece; it is an important topic. Another firm you left out, WorldStudio, has been doing similar work for many years through their foundation, http://blog.worldstudioinc.com/. They recently began running a 1-day workshop on funding social-change projects that I attended here at IIT in Chicago. There are many promising models for working towards social good while also putting bread on the table, and I hope more designers start pursuing them.
Vince LaConte

The not for profit model is really the only way I see these types of initiatives going forward. And that's not a bad thing. One aspect I would suggest to designers working with clients on these issues is the fact that we can either invest in the past or invest in the future. Most corporations have deep investments in the past. Dow Chemicals for example. There is no reason for this company to exist. But there are a thousand reasons why wind turbines and solar power need to.
Drew Wiltsey

Thanks to Ernest Beck for the coverage on Catapult. I'm thrilled to see the design firms exploring new models getting some coverage. I spent years in the for-profit design world, condemned to a career designing consumer electronics. I was never successful in making probono or "employee downtime" work for low-income clients, but excited to see other design firms making headway. The reality is, there are thousands of new grads entering the market each year with a passion for solving real problems in the world -- where is the outlet to support that passion?
Heather Fleming

A non-profit approach to social impact design is essential to represent smaller social organizations that are not served by the for-profit giants like IDEO and Continuum. However, a successful non-profit approach to design services requires that the firm tie funding to outcomes, which is something that design has historically had difficulty doing.
At Design Impact, a very young design non-profit, we are seriously studying this issue (http://www.d-impact.org/blog/?p=223). While we believe that design services can be largely funded by foundations, we agree with Catapult that a healthy organization needs to find more balanced and diverse ways to fund itself.
Ramsey Ford

I founded Design for Social GOOD in May of 2009 while we are a "for-profit" company we find ways to give back to "non-profits" who could never afford to hire a design company.

We would love to find foundations that would fund our design work in underserved, developing countries but we've had very little success. The success we've had is in bringing professionals together to form mass projects like our launch of http://www.do1thing.org last year which raise more than $100,000 for Covenant House International and garnered a four page spread in People Magazine. While the project gave them huge exposure and we had more than 35 Pulitzer-prize winning photographers donate their time to the project, we could not find one foundation or sponsor for the project.

We do our best to give huge price breaks to small and deserving non-profits and pay the bills through work for larger non-profits. When someone finds a way to educate these huge foundations on the importance of GOOD design for non--profits, let us know! We believe it is our duty to give back but to be honest, you can only give so much until your staff needs to pay their bills!

Najlah Hicks

I agree that finding foundation support for design services is a tall order. I think that it is especially difficult for web and graphic design services because, as promotional and communications designers, they are often twice removed from the impact of the organization they are partnering with, and they are providing a service that foundations have traditionally expected organizations to fund out of private donations.

Ramsey Ford

Speaking of frog and social change...
Jon Kolko, an Associate Creative Director at frog, has opened up a school for designing social change called the Austin Center for Design.

Great read. I am a recent graduate and in my senior project class there were about a fourth of us that were exploring Social Change in various ways. My project culminated in the form of a website/blog acknowledge current successful organizations or ideas, but to also play host for the projects that I developed over the course of the semester. I'm currently interning at a local agency and finding myself trying to "work in" positive social change into projects that I am involved in.

Justin McKinley

There is possibly nothing more painful to read than breathlessness over "social design," unless it's naive self-serving comments in response. Helping other people: great. Assisting rural health clinics in Rwanda: super. Not finding foundation money in support of these endeavors: oh pshaw!

Again and again we need to be reminded that these superimposed technologies are top-down, remotely produced, expensive to install, and difficult to maintain in places like rural Africa. But do we listen? Naw, hell no. Indigenous technology, look at that dangerous paraffin lamp, not only gives light, but it employs an African to make it, not a European or Chinese. Counter intuitive.

Passive solar? What about passive convection? It's as old as the Nile. I know, I know; I'm being purposely obtuse. We're talking about rural electrification, bringing the comforts of Europe to the bush, creating further dependencies on our own expertism. What could possibly be wrong with that???

And here I thought we were enthralled with African can-do junkbot design. Isn't that why William Kamkwamba became the darling of TED for his makeshift windmill? What about the Maker Faires? Or are we really just totally addicted to novelty? I'm laughing sardonically through my tears.

Since when did "social design" become the primary raison d'etre of design schools anyway? Could it have something to do with fashion? Godalmighty! You have only to look at the inherent contradictions of your own quotations to learn the drill: "talent recruitment"; "viable business model"; "non-profit aspiring to be for profit."

When "that young design talent (that) cares and wants to work at a place where they can feel and see the impact they have in the world" finally catches on, they'll be too co-opted by the new business model to even realize that it's really just the old business model in sheeps' clothing.

But, hey, I've got an idea: let's get real original for a moment here and do something different. Why not design an unsustainable widget for mass distribution and cause widespread social upheaval? Nanobots anyone? I know it sounds totally cynical, but least then we wouldn't come across like a bunch of whining-holier-than-thou-johnny-come-lately-opportunist-ninnies! What a concept!

david stairs

Interesting read! Re: the idea of Muoio, “the challenge is to create a business model that is viable and demonstrates the value of this work.” The work that the Design for the Other 90% is doing may also be a good example of successfully pulling off this theory. http://d-rev.org and for your reference, more fantastic finds from the MIT D-Lab: http://bit.ly/9jhDAv and the Stanford Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability http://extreme.stanford.edu.

I agree with some of the comments by david stairs, but would add this:

Why is design for social innovation so exclusively focused on either disaster relief for poor people, or 'modernising' the 'underdeveloped'.

It is us in the developed word that live in the engine room of global crises. The globalised production methods that sustain our economies and lifestyles create inequality and exacerbate disasters, which, in our post-natural world, will never again be just an 'act of god'.

And then there is the status of the dominated with the developed world. How can small business and localised manufacturing compete in 'advanced economies'? How can collective action be upscaled so that it has a more powerful impact? How can slower, more humble, more caring attitudes towards things and people be reintroduced into contexts of rationalisation, flow, and hyper temporality.

The problems are closer to home than we think, and unless designers challenge their own thinking, their own practice, and their own politics, there will always be a 'humanitarian' niche that soaks up the misplaced pity of designers.

Two years ago we implemented our Green Design Grant, where we give away a year's worth of free design to a sustainable enterprise that could not otherwise pay for design services. It helps us to not only focus our pro-bono efforts to align with our mission as a sustainable design firm, but allows us to help an organization that needs to get their message out. www.rogue-element.com

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