When reflecting on 15 years of applying behavioral science to complex social problems, one thing that stands out is our work to dramatically expand the use of behavioral science as a problem-solving tool.

On one hand, the field has long emphasized that a behavioral approach should not be the domain of only a few elite researchers. The use of behavioral science for good is grounded in helping people follow through on their own intentions and align their lives with their values. Behavioral designers also draw from the expertise of people who directly experience particular challenges of specific contexts, and are expected to benefit from solutions.

On the other hand, simply plugging previously effective interventions into new contexts is not a promising route to success. Applying a behavioral lens to new contexts requires thoughtful training, hands-on learning, and coaching. We’ve introduced our methodology and approach to many hundreds of people across a range of industries, with dozens of partners in governments and large NGOs, practitioners in fields like financial inclusion, and higher education systems around the world through long-term programmatic engagements and capacity-building curricula. These efforts, while impactful, still only reach part of the world’s problem-solvers.

That’s where, for the past six years, our Behavioral Design Center has come in. The BDC has shown that by modeling with nonprofit staff how to ask the right questions—focusing particularly on barriers to desired or intended actions—we can help them formulate appropriate, evidence-informed designs. It is our way of making the power of behavioral science, proven effective in so many contexts, accessible to more problem solvers at the community level. Applying a behavioral lens to many of the common problems these organizations face—such as low enrollment in programs or drop-off in client participation—can help more people access and benefit from valuable programs and services.

The value of this approach has been borne out through 27 in-depth, direct project partnerships, 77 office-hour style consultations, and nearly 100 workshop sessions. Cumulatively, the BDC has supported more than 2,500 nonprofit professionals in the human services, youth and community development, and civic engagement.

The BDC has worked with organizations to redesign programs, processes, and outreach materials to help more people enroll in their services, persist, or take follow up actions to advance their goals. Short-term outcomes have included: higher response rates to redesigned communications; increases in participant and volunteer engagement and client referrals; and improvements in staff training, client intake, and data gathering.

 Here are a few specific results of that work:

  • 26%-85% increase in monthly referrals to an organization supporting new parents in New York City.
  • 25% increase in the number of nominated students submitting an application for a free college access and success program.
  • 15% increase in number of visits made by volunteers to alleviate social isolation among older adults.
  • Higher open rates for “Take Action” emails encouraging recipients to write to public officials.

The BDC approach has touched practitioners in nonprofits across a range of service and issue areas.

Staff we’ve worked with attest to how they now feel equipped to bring behavioral thinking to their work going forward:

While BDC engagements with nonprofits usually centered around a specific challenge, the impact of our work together has rippled out beyond the presenting problem to inform how practitioners approach their work in communities. Many program directors told us how they have continued to use a behavioral approach after our work with them ended:

Since its inception, our Behavioral Design Center has aimed to help organizations approach social change advocacy and service delivery in their own way, bolstered by rigor and research-informed design. Private industry has been applying the insights from behavioral science for years to drive customer engagement, retention, and ultimately profits. Larger nonprofits, NGOs, education systems, and governments have taken up the behavioral approach in recent decades to improve policies, programs, and services on a large scale, including countless ideas42 partners.

Through the BDC, we’ve been able to bring these insights to the smaller, local level—and straight to those on the front lines of delivering beneficial supports and programs to many people experiencing poverty and other challenges. We’re proud of how this approach has democratized who practices behavioral science and expanded the implementation of its insights and design strategies by those who play such a vital role in serving historically marginalized populations and strengthening local communities.