Design Thinking & Non-Profit Development

My husband Tom and I live in Hamilton MA, a small town with miles of trails that connect over private and public land. As avid cross country skiers, for years we have traveled to NH, Maine, VT, and Weston, MA to access groomed ski trails and we’ve often thought, “wouldn’t it be great to be able to ski right in Hamilton on the trails that are steps away from our back door?” After speaking with neighbors and friends in the community, it became clear that we were not alone in our interest for expanded use of our local trails during winter months.

In 2015 we took action and formed The North Shore Nordic Association, a nonprofit with the purpose of providing community snow grooming on local trails. Creating a non-profit from the ground up was a new venture for me, but I was excited to find that my years of work as a product designer and founder of Catalano Design were valuable to the formation of NSNA. One tool from the design industry that was especially effective in approaching work with NSNA was “design thinking” – a five-pronged approach to the creative process driven by empathy, ideation, and exploration rather than linear innovation. We have engaged this process throughout our work with NSNA, using many of the steps in both early and later stages of the organization to refresh our focus on the North Shore community and its needs. Following are the stages of design thinking and how they drove and continue to drive our process building North Shore Nordic Association.


EMPATHIZE - Observe, engage, watch, and listen. Understand the stakeholders.

  • Prior to launch, we met with landowners and land stewards to request permission to groom across their land. We spoke with cross country skiers in our community to get their feedback about trail use. Other passionate members of our community came forward, excited to be involved.
  • We built a core team with a common interest - our primary focus is on community.
  • Over the past three years, we have prioritized checking in with our community, volunteers, and trail users. Their continual feedback has influenced our choices when editing the website, creating trail signage, establishing grooming practices, fundraising, and trail maintenance efforts.

DEFINE - Identify needs and insights, develop a point of view, synthesize inputs.

  • Our brand statement “community ski-trail grooming” was developed to reflect NSNA’s responsibility to and reliance on its community.
  • Early priorities included laying out a map of the trail network we would groom, researching grooming equipment, and creating a budget.
  • During our second season, we partnered with sponsor Craft Sportswear to design custom branded graphics for a line of Nordic outerwear that we used both as a fundraising effort and as a uniform for NSNA's volunteer Trail Ambassadors. The clothing created an easily recognizable brand mark and stimulated a response from people interested in more information.
  • Trail Ambassadors met and interacted with people out on the trails, and the NSNA branded clothing provided a visual cue for the organization, reminding community members of NSNA’s mission in a simple but memorable way.

IDEATE – Generate ideas, extend beyond obvious solutions, harness collective perspectives.

  • Critical to NSNA’s ongoing mission are the guidelines we set in place early on: Groomed trails free and open to everyone. An all-volunteer organization. Building a community of folks that enjoy getting outside in the winter.
  • The diverse perspective of our board has led to heated discussions ranging from which grooming equipment we should purchase to the language on our trail signage. Ultimately, this has made our organization stronger.
  • We’ve had to think beyond standard revenue streams, such as requiring skiers to purchase trail passes, to draw increased support. Instead, NSNA’s support comes from individual donors, corporate sponsors, and grants from local institutions.

PROTOTYPE - Communicate, test possibilities.

  • In preparation for NSNA’s initial launch at a town meeting in November 2015, we crafted a website, a poster, and flyers to hand out. Just four weeks after the meeting, we had six board members and a handful of corporate sponsors. This confirmed for us that we had the support of the community and a working model for gathering interest and involvement.
  • Grooming the trails themselves is an entirely separate process, one we are still refining. Grooming is an art involving snow structure, temperature, wind, and sometimes rain. We have found firsthand experience to be one of the most relevant ways to learn what works. The variables around each snowfall are always different, and recent Nor’easters have come with high snowfall and often high winds. On numerous occasions we’ve needed to cut and clear dozens of trees that have fallen across the trails.
  • Streamlining our groomer report process involved lots of trials and testing. Getting information out to skiers quickly was a priority, but in harsh conditions it was not easy for a groomer to remove gloves and use their phones. Early on we tried using a laminated sheet with dry erase markers that groomers could mark up at the end of their shift, photograph, and text for distribution on our various platforms – but this didn’t hold up in wet conditions. Currently we use a custom online form with a list of trails and a place for equipment notes, trail conditions, fuel level, and location of the groomer at end of shift, which is automatically distributed by email to key social media volunteers who then post the updates on our website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We have a similar template in Mailchimp that can be quickly updated and sent out to our mailing list for up to date conditions.
  • We developed trail signage for the NSNA to post in groomed areas. The signs served several purposes, including public awareness, wayfinding, and trail etiquette.

TEST - Refine solutions, learn more about the user, refine your point of view, iterate.

  • After the initial launch of our website, we received feedback from both volunteers and community members which allowed us to further refine our delivery of trail information.
  • We continually update and edit the site, giving highest priority to information about current trail conditions. We added an interactive trail map that is useful to the public for trailhead directions and wayfinding, but still manageable for the NSNA volunteers to implement and update.
  • Dedicated board members and volunteers help us provide comprehensive social media outreach to the public. We created and linked NSNA's Twitter and Facebook profiles and mailing list allows NSNA to quickly and easily report on trail grooming, conditions, volunteer efforts, and fundraisers.

Our grooming and outreach efforts resulted in over 700 followers of the organization on the North Shore in our first season, with more from surrounding areas joining as NSNA's trail grooming efforts gained publicity. As of January 2018, a typical grooming report now reaches up to 2,500 people in Northeastern Massachusetts between social media and the mailing list.

There will always be interesting challenges to solve. Teamwork driven by design thinking has allowed NSNA’s development over the past three years to flourish, as we focused on an open exchange of community feedback and organizational response. We are endlessly grateful to our volunteers, supporters, and skiers, as their input is essential to this process and has built a foundation for growth and improvement that benefits our greater North Shore community. We look forward to what lies ahead!

Carol Catalano