Heather Fleming

Designing for the BOP: 9 Tips for Success, Pitfalls to Avoid When Evaluating a Project

Engineers and designers interested in social impact work all want to use their skills to do good in the world. After all, there are billions of people in need and millions worthy causes to work with. But “doing good” does not necessarily correlate to impact. You, as an individual or as an organization, could be the best at what you do and spend thousands of hours on the world’s most innovative solution to a problem. But if that solution is never implemented or implemented poorly, your time and effort are futile.

There are millions socially driven organizations around the world with limited or no access to needed technical and design expertise, yet few have the capacity to effectively use that expertise. Over the years I’ve witnessed several NGOs, big and small, flub technology and product initiatives due to a lack of product development and implementation knowledge. So if you’re interested in the BOP design space, consider this: success isn’t about completing a defined scope or work, it may not even be about sales or revenue, it’s about impact.

After five years I’m just starting to figure out what that means. Tim Prestero, the Executive Director of Design That Matters, has a four-year head start on me and has it drilled down to a science. If Tim’s name sounds familiar, you may have seen him interviewed on CNN recently regarding designs for the “Neonurture,” a hospital incubator made from car parts. See below:

We compared notes recently and distilled our thoughts. So here it goes. If you’re an individual designer, engineer, or a design firm thinking of taking on client work in the BOP sector, here’s our list of 9 things that will increase the probability of impact:

1. Adopt the mindset of an investor. Vet the project and financial viability thoroughly as well as organizational capacity, impact, and the team behind the organization. You want to make sure the organization you place your bet on can and will fulfill its objective. Tim’s rule of thumb: an organization must have been in business for 10 years and pushed products before.

2. The organization has previously demonstrated innovation capacity.

3. The organization has a solid, trustworthy reputation with their user base.

4. Put special consideration and extra due diligence when considering working with international clients. Tim points out that business development costs are significantly higher due to travel, language and cultural differences, and the extra time spent on partnership-building, due diligence and need-finding.

(Above: The Ihangane Project interviews health practitioners in rural Rwanda on their electrical needs. Image Credit: Catapult Design).


5. Your lead contact is the CEO; meaning you need to have access to and support from decision makers.

6. Avoid pro bono project work. This is hard, but free labor is often valued as such. To get the information, time and skin-in-the-game you need to get the job done, charge a fee or find a way to get your client emotionally committed. Catapult Design also requires a minimum of 33% of the project budget up front.


7. The end product of your efforts will impact a minimum of 10,000 people, but preferably in the millions.

8. Before taking on a design-thinking or research proposal, develop concrete outcomes. For example, if your research results spare a client from investing time and resources into a misguided idea, how would you show that?

9. Ensure the design accounts for failure. For example, if you’re assisting with the development of a water sanitation project within a community, could project failure leave the community in a worse situation? Failure on part of the design or implementation should not be to the detriment of the end-user.

Of course, we would love to hear from others who have their own pitfalls to contribute to this list. Drop them in the comments below!

(Image at top: The Catapult Design team evaluating a solar-wind hybrid system with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority in Arizona. Credit: Catapult Design.)

– Tim Prestero, Executive Director of Design that Matters, contributed to this post.