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Using service design to enhance the impact of charities

The voluntary sector’s income has not grown since 2009 despite the growing demand for charities’ services. This has meant that many charities, such as Action for Children in Northeast England, have cutback services or are trying to do more with less. However, research from Dr Laura Warwick, Senior Lecturer in Service Design and Social Innovation at Northumbria University, is showing that service design can help charities improve their service without incurring more time, stress or money. 

Service design is the process of using design tools and techniques to consider and craft the experience someone receives when using a service. Design methodologies, such as the double diamond which guides the design process, have been applied to for-profit organisations for decades; however, prior to Warwick, few researchers have applied these concepts to voluntary organisations.  

Warwick’s early work with Tyneside and Northumberland Mind, YMCA North Tyneside and Seven Stories, proved that design approaches are of great value to the voluntary sector. For example, Tyneside and Northumberland Mind were awarded £426,636 by the BIG Lottery following Warwick’s work with them, and their co-designed ‘Empower your mind’ service has since helped over 200 people connect to their local community through volunteering. Warwick also received acclaim for her work as an Associate on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) that embedded service design methodologies within Age UK Newcastle. The KTP on the Research Councils UK Knowledge Base Impact Award in 2013. 

Warwick is now investigating the professional skills designers need when working in the voluntary sector and how to make service design activities more sustainable. This research directly informed her engagements with Mind, the UK’s largest mental health network. In this role, Warwick’s research helped transform Mind’s organisational culture. Leveraging her research and input, Mind created a bespoke programme called Service Design in Mind (SDiM), whose remit is to give the organisation the tools it needs to automatically use design approaches in everyday activities.  

She also helped Mind and its 140 local chapters use design approaches to create new services that are tailored to service users’ needs. In 2015, Warwick’s research was used to co-design a perinatal mental health service, which leveraged the knowledge of mums who had experienced mental health issues during their pregnancies. The resulting service, Mums Matter, has since been prototyped and tested, and is now being delivered by eight local Minds across England and Wales. Service users have enthused that the programme has had a significant positive impact on their mental health. 

Many charities have attributed Warwick’s research as being critical to improving their ability to secure funding. Hazel Flynn, Head of Local Service Strategy and Development at Mind, attributes Warwick’s research to helping Mind receive £2.2 million and has described Warwick’s work as ‘instrumental’ to its activities.  

Charities now come to Warwick asking for help. Warwick has used this as an opportunity to have double-sided impact, enabling students in the Northumbria School of Design to gain hands-on work through service design projects with these charities. By teaching students how to apply design in the voluntary sector, Warwick’s research will certainly have an enduring impact on society.  

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