Empathy jam session

Design thinking helps millennials grow: Ford’s Thirty Under 30 reflects on past class, looks forward to future

It’s a common sight during the winter holiday season. Bell ringers standing in the cold outside malls and stores, collecting change for charity in red kettle.

But for many in the community, that red kettle is all they know about The Salvation Army, the international organization that has made the red metal bucket a signature part of holiday donations. The same rang true for many of the fellows participating in Ford’s first Thirty Under 30 program.

The nine-month leadership program instructs 30, millennial-aged Ford employees on what it takes to work in philanthropy. In addition to learning how charities work, the Thirty Under 30 fellows provide insights for non-profits to better connect with the largest generation of young people since the Baby Boomers came of age.

Last year, 10 fellows each collaborated with the Salvation Army, Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries and the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. While helping these nonprofits create solutions applicable to longstanding programs and new initiatives, the millennial employees were taken through a learning process called design thinking by experts at the Henry Ford Learning Institute. The process involves using solution-based design methodologies and applying them to life, business, cultural situations — or in this case, the three Detroit-area nonprofits.

For many of the fellows, the most important building block that design thinking helped to provide when approaching the nonprofit focus points was empathy.

“Empathy is the biggest piece to the puzzle,” said Roy Yewah, a member of the inaugural Thirty Under 30 class and a Financial Analyst in Ford’s Manufacturing, Parts and Logistics area.

“There was a lot of emphasis (for us) to talk to all involved,” Yewah said. “We talked to the homeless. Listened to their bad experiences to gain a better understanding of their needs. We listened to the volunteers to learn their ideas to improve morale.”

Unifying the voices so all are heard on an equal plane is a key to reaching the fulfilling circle of volunteerism and satisfying service needs. In other words – learning what is behind all those red kettles.

James Peng, a Thirty Under 30 participant, control systems engineer in Dearborn, said one of the projects for the Salvation Army was finding ways to attract a younger audience through Echelon, the nonprofit’s National Young Adult Auxiliary.

“We did a design of four seasons activation,” he said. “Every three months, they will have some sort of event that relates to something they care about, their causes, instead of just their presence around Christmastime.”

For the Salvation Army Outdoors program, the Ford employees advocated spreading the word via the summer camps and the fall back-to-school backpacking event.

They also looked for solutions to improve efficacy for the nonprofit’s Bed & Bread Club, which aims to make 3,000 to 4,500 sandwiches each day with two full-time employees and volunteers.

This project reinforced the idea that every little bit counts when it comes to volunteering or giving, program participant Meredith Citkowski, a chemical engineer with the Lincoln Continental program at the Flat Rock Assembly Plant, said.

Her group developed an idea following tire tracks Henry Ford created. Utilizing an assembly line concept, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a childhood lunch fave, became a meal for thousands.

“We prototyped our micro-volunteer opportunity concept and made one sandwich every 6.5 seconds,” Citkowski said.

That resulted in 1,100 sandwiches by hand in about two hours before they ran out of bread.

“Advanced planning, together with a high volume of volunteer participation, made for a highly efficient and highly impactful volunteer project,” she said.

On optimum days, they averaged 3.09 seconds per sandwich. However, without volunteers the assembly slows to 9.60 seconds, or only 3,000 sandwiches made, causing 500 fewer people to get a meal.

While many of the millennials wanted quick volunteering projects to go along with their kinetic lifestyles, they discovered the design-thinking process requires the patience to shelve preconceived notions of others and a willingness to revisit ideas that provide an ah-ha! moment deeper into the project.

“At some point, it may feel like you are cruising along full speed ahead, and (you) reach a dead end. Don’t get discouraged,” Citkowski said. “This is a normal part of the process, and every dead end is a new insight that will serve to further refine your final product.”

Increase and multiply

The collaboration of 30 millennials and the three nonprofits already is paying off.

While more than 200 employees applied for the inaugural Thirty Under 30 class, the number of applicants to the sophomore class, which kicked off in February, increased 72 percent to 362. The new group has one focus — food insecurity.

And the number of participating nonprofits also has increased, doubling to six, including Gleaners Community Food Bank, Crossroads of Michigan, Yad Ezra, Fish & Loaves Community Food Pantry, Pope Francis Center and Ford Mobile Food Pantry.

As a new advocate of the design-thinking approach, Peng anticipates volunteering to help with the second Thirty Under 30 class. He added that he can incorporate the tools he learned in other philanthropic ventures and on his 9-to-5 job.

Likewise, Yewah and his group plan to continue working with nonprofits. They are developing a foundation to help local nonprofits locate experienced personnel who can address ongoing issues concerning leadership, funding and volunteerism.

“Allowing them to consult (with) nonprofits for the better will be extremely satisfying and attractive in order for our continued success as a foundation,” he said. They now await word from the Bill Ford Better World Challenge committee, a global grant program awarding as much as $500,000 to winning civic projects, to learn if their creation is a winner.


Join the conversation

* = required