Case Study: Activate Good and McClatchy

By Abby Reimer

Playing the middleman can get tricky. Activate Good, which works to connect Triangle residents with non-profit volunteer opportunities, knows this too well.

Amber Smith started Activate Good back in 2005 after spending two-and-a-half months driving cross-country and volunteering along the way. In her travels, she found that many people wanted to volunteer, but didn’t know how to get started.

Activate Good launched to give volunteers the tools they needed to get started making an impact in their community and give non-profits a way to recruit passionate and skills-matched volunteers. The organization now works with hundreds of nonprofits in the Triangle and recently started working with companies to coordinate volunteer days and corporate volunteering programs.


That’s a lot of coordination — and Activate Good’s website couldn’t keep up. Amber and her team knew they had a lot of changes to make, from glitch fixes to reinventing the user experience for both non-profits and volunteers. They also had tons of insights — in fact, Amber had a spreadsheet with more than a 100 ideas.

The McClatchy innovation team spends a lot of time thinking about how to distill complex challenges down to quick, iterative solutions. We’ve worked with teams across McClatchyto address local challenges (such as: How might we better reach millennial audiences in Lexington, Kentucky) and partners such as and Tru Measure to launch new features and evaluate their product pipelines.


At its core, design thinking seeks to deeply empathize with users, brainstorm solutions and quickly build solutions, and start testing them immediately with users. It’s meant to be flexible and user-centered — a perfect fit for Activate Good’s website redesign challenge.

We believed partnering with Activate Good would benefit both Activate Good and our team. As a Raleigh-based team, we’re invested in being an active part our community. We teach teams to develop deep empathy for their users, including understanding the full context of a user’s life. Working with Activate Good helped us understand the context in which our users live, work and give back.

Our three-day design sprint together was a case study in applying design-thinking to a multi-user challenge, working within constraints and collaborating across organizations. We were excited to work with the Activate Good team and are looking forward to applying what we learned to future boot camps and partnerships.

The boot camp challenge:

How might we design a website that allows volunteers, companies, and nonprofits to coordinate volunteering and connect issues with action and impact?

The team:

From Activate Good:

Founder: Amber Smith

Board Member: Chirag Bhangale

Fund Development Director: Courtney Hamm

Web Developer:  Katie Benedetto Jones

From McClatchy:

Director of Team Development and Intrapreneurship: Jeremy Gockel

Innovation Manager: Abby Reimer

UX/ UI Developer: Chelsea Brown

Design Intern: Mary Catherine Young

Goals for the session:

Learn the design-thinking process

Design a “rough-draft” website

Empathize with stakeholders

Plan for prototype iteration post-boot camp

Key Challenges:

The multi-user dilemma: Our design-thinking boot camps encourage participants to be relentlessly user centered. In this case, however, Activate Good needed to build a solution that worked for two users: nonprofits and volunteers. In order to design a website that addressed both groups’ occasionally disjointed needs, we had to adapt our process.

Here’s what we learned.

  1. Solve for the trickiest user first. You can’t possibly solve every problem at once. In empathy interviews with both volunteers and nonprofits, it was evident that volunteers’ interactions with the site needed to be addressed first. Without a volunteer base, nonprofits would have no reason to sign on to Activate Good’s platform. Further, nonprofits were highly motivated to reach qualified volunteers – often developing hacks and complicated systems to do so. Volunteers, however, had many things competing for their time and attention and needed a streamlined and inspiring path to volunteering. To learn more about focusing on a practical solution and narrowing in on relevant information, check out this blog post from UX Developer Chelsea Brown.
  2. Build and test in phases. During initial prototyping, the team mapped out both the non-profit and volunteer user journey. They prototyped and tested the volunteer path first before making adjustments for the non-profit journey, which we’ll assist the Activate Good team in doing in the coming month.
  3. Design a holistic solution. To ensure a unified prototype for both user groups, the team’s initial prototype sketches had the same starting point — in this case, an identical homepage. While prototyping and testing the volunteer path, the team mapped out where volunteers and nonprofits would cross paths. Identifying these touch points (and potential conflict areas) gave the team a clear way to prototype the non-profit journey. One example? The volunteering sign-up confirmation process between volunteers and nonprofits.

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The implementation task.  Our design-thinking sessions are short and fast paced. Implementing insights quickly and effectively is crucial to carrying through the design-thinking framework into everyday processes.

Here’s what we learned:

  1. Map out specific next steps immediately following the boot camp. Clearly articulating goals (the old SMART goal framework applies here) is the best way to move ideas forward. In wrapping up the Activate Good boot camp, each participant wrote out three tasks to complete within the next week and next month.
  2. Document everything. During a design-thinking session, it’s tempting to think you’ll automatically remember every great quote and insight. Yet things can get fuzzy fast. Take pictures of boards and post-it-notes, as well as taking easy-to-understand notes. This will help you remember specifics, and give co-workers who weren’t able to attend a clear understanding of what you learned and the process you took to get there.
  3. Make sure the “builder” is part of the process from the beginning. Coordinating schedules and putting aside day-to-day tasks can be difficult. But it’s crucial to include everyone who will be involved in implementing and building solutions in the process – even if it’s just for the most important parts. In this case, developer Katie Benedetto Jones joined in for prototyping and will meet with Amber to understand all insights gathered and next steps. If someone has to miss a step or jump in midway through, send them a quick recap before they join. Design-thinking sprints are fast-paced so you won’t have a lot of time to catch people up.

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Redesign vs. invention battle. Our design-thinking sessions are often open-ended challenges, focused on brand-new ideas rather than existing products. Activate Good’s boot camp, however, allowed us to explore the design-thinking process for reinvention and redesign. For a full discussion of this challenge, check out UX Developer Chelsea Brown’s blog post.

Here’s what we learned:

  1. Build off your foundation. Activate Good knows its brand and mission better than anyone, so much of our session was centered around bringing those aspects into the new design. We knew they already did a lot of things right, they just needed a better way to present it. A redesign is a chance to evaluate what’s working and what’s not and build from there, so it’s important to be open about those aspects from the start.
  2. Constraints are actually great for creativity. Focusing on Activate Good’s website presence—rather than their entire program—allowed the team to come up with some awesome ideas to showcase their amazing work and mission.
  3. Anything is possible during the brainstorming process. It’s easy for your mind to wander and skip a few steps if you know the end platform before the session begins. You’ll be coming in with lots of ideas and knowledge about what has historically worked well and fallen flat. During the brainstorming process, we encourage people to let go of those judgments and look past their inhibitions. Prototyping and testing allow teams to whittle down their ideas, and often the open-minded brainstorming pushes you to embrace more creative solutions and think about how you improve upon past experiments.



We’re looking forward to seeing Activate Good’s new website up and running in the fall. Our team enjoyed working with an organization doing such great work in the Triangle, and we’re excited to apply our learnings to future boot camps in and outside of McClatchy.

If you’re interested in working with McClatchy Innovation to learn the design-thinking process and jump start a project or idea, we’d love to work with you. Email Innovation Manager Abby Reimer ( to learn more.

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