Olga Elizarova: Community-designed solutions

February 26, 2021


Olga’s journey towards Play, Collaborate, Change started in 2016 as a volunteering project within a company, a design agency, she was working for at the time. While the company communicated the social impact work they did, they had no budget for it; but what they did have was volunteering hours allocated to the employees and an education budget, and this is how Olga started on her path towards social entrepreneurship.

She began by reaching out to her contacts and asking if they had connections to organizations that work with vulnerable populations but which could not afford design work. One of the first projects she worked on came to her through a friend – it was a health centre in Michigan, which served people without health insurance. She and two of her colleagues travelled there for a two-day challenge to help address missed appointments and no-shows at the clinic. She found the experience very rewarding and the results fascinating. The clinic had initially planned to install an expensive automated voice system, but after holding a comprehensive workshop in the clinic, working with patients, doctors, nurses and administrators, Olga and her team realized that the problem layed elsewhere, namely in waiting times for patients. The clinic had been trying to compensate for missed appointments and no-shows by double-booking and overbooking appointments, which led to frustrations and complications for patients who had to make special arrangements, such as childcare, to be able to attend. This experience led Olga to realize that working with a community directly through design thinking helps you understand the true unmet needs in every situation.

It is this bottom-up, community-led problem solving that Olga has found to be so rewarding. She said that while she worked on some interesting projects at her old company, success had depended on the financial return and had focused on only one stakeholder. Quite differently, working with a community brings a different set of satisfactions – seeing real-life improvement in people’s lives and the functioning of something important to the community is priceless. Olga later started bringing her students to work on these projects. As the projects developed and multiplied, she decided to formalise this as “Play, Collaborate, Change”. 

It is still quite early to formally set up the social enterprise, although she already has lots of experience and ideas on how to develop it. The underlying idea and principle behind all these projects is that it’s the people who are experiencing the problem who hold the solutions, and who are best equipped to solve it. 

There are three levels of “Play, Collaborate, Change”: a game, a challenge and a camp. They all offer solutions, but differ according to time commitment and depth. The profit-making side is a little more complicated as Olga does not expect the communities to pay for these offers, but this is what she is working on with her Y&Y mentors. She’s finding the Y&Y Fellowship to be extremely helpful in structuring the next steps she needs to take with her business. The plan is to work with consumers, and corporations who are interested in this problem-solving system within their CSR work. Additionally, the nonprofits (including some run by other Y&Y Fellows!) ‘donate’ challenges that then get solved via Olga’s initiative. It can bring both donations to the organizations from the people who complete the challenges, as well as being a marketing tool. In the end, the aim is for “Play, Collaborate, Change” to not only become a sustainable business for Olga, but also to support a whole ecosystem of organizations – these are big plans, but with Olga’s enthusiasm and experience it’s clear she’ll get there. 

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