Marianne Stone: Shaping the Humanitarian Sector Through Design

The dynamic worlds of non-profit humanitarian work, innovation, and creative problem-solving are becoming increasingly critical. Marianne Stone, the Regional Project Director for the Ahlan Simsim Initiative at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), is a shining example of how design thinking can be harnessed to make a significant impact on social good. Stone’s journey into the world of design and experiences with the Strategic Design for Global Leadership (SDGL) program has not only reshaped her approach to her own career but has reinforced a passion for using strategic design to create positive change.

Two years after graduating from the program and six years since the inception of Ahlan Simsim, Stone now celebrates the launch of Transforming Tomorrow: Innovative Solutions for Children in Crisis, IRC’s newest report, sharing learning from Ahlan Simsim’s implementation. Marianne sat down with us to reflect on her journey and share vital lessons gleaned from delivering and scaling Ahlan Simsim, the single largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response.

Marianne Stone attends her SDGL graduation.

Q: What was the vision for Ahlan Simsim, and how has this six-year journey been?

A: The journey began in 2016, when Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) came together to address a humanitarian crisis: a generation of children raised amidst conflict in Syria and the surrounding region, with limited access to early childhood learning and development opportunities. The resulting initiative, Ahlan Simsim, is now the single largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response, marking a dramatic impact across sectors and borders.

The investment in the initiative came in 2017, when the organization won the first-ever $100 million “big bet” grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition to deliver a life-changing intervention for millions of children affected by conflict and crisis across the region. Built on input from local early childhood development (ECD) experts, psychologists, researchers, linguists, and creatives as well as from the children and families themselves, Ahlan Simsim focuses on the needs of the whole child–from health and developmental milestones to foundational skills–and using the “emotional ABCs” to identify and manage “big feelings.” These skills form a critical foundation for all young children, even more so for those who have experienced adversity. I have been with the project from the beginning, so I have seen my role evolve along with the program—from designing a strategy to implementing it to structuring the approach to learning what works, all the way through evaluating impact. Change has been a constant over these six years of Ahlan Simsim’s work, but the program’s vision has always been laser-focused on bringing value to children and families across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.

Q: Can you highlight any specific insights or key learnings from the execution of Ahlan Simsim?

A: One key learning we highlighted in the report is the importance of adaptation, innovation, and continuous learning, which became the team’s ethos in an environment where we constantly needed to adapt to new challenges. This approach is embedded in how we work and has allowed us to respond more effectively to shifts in contexts and challenges. When COVID-19 hit, this approach was key to our ability to reflect on how we could support continued access to quality learning materials for children across MENA. Another insight was how distinctions like “humanitarian” versus “development” approaches can hinder progress. Throughout the initiative, we had the time and the financing to operate as humanitarian actors and contribute to key development milestones (without being constrained into one bucket or the other). We were able to draw from a variety of content and approaches to best serve the needs of children and families.

Q: What lessons did you learn from scaling the initiative?

A: The concept of reaching children and families at scale, meaning understanding the total need and addressing as much of that need as possible, was a core part of the original Ahlan Simsim design. Working on scale requires a commitment to working within systems and alongside local actors toward impact and sustainability. Successful scale, we found, was driven by a variety of factors. Critically, nimble funding strategies allowed us to invest in the right places and to divest when things weren’t resonating. We were lucky to have access to significant philanthropic funding that afforded us this flexibility.

However, when thinking about scale, we also recognized the importance of including both public and private capital to address complex challenges. Beyond the financials, we found that more programmatic elementssuch as a true commitment to co-design drawing from system-based needs and local priorities combined with commitment to learning and targeted investment in policiesfoster localized ownership toward common goals. We also know that working towards scale often isn’t enough. In our report, we reflect on how we attempted to balance scale and equity, work we are still undertaking today to inform future iterations of Ahlan Simsim.

Young girl waving at Elmo in Saida, Lebanon. Photo: Ryan Heffernan/Sesame Workshop

Q: How did you approach the research and data capture within Ahlan Simsim?

A: Learning was central to the project and became a core part of our team culture, and the learning methods were diverse. The MacArthur Foundation’s mandate for a 15% investment in research and monitoring as part of the project’s design allowed us to invest in rigorous research studies. We did three randomized control trials in collaboration with our partners at New York University’s Global TIES for Children.

This investment also supported our broad learning agenda, where we asked ourselves questions about the usability of content, how we could increase demand in ECD, what programs could look like when done in collaboration with other sectors like healthcare, and how we could create and market quality digital assets and content that would allow us to extend services for children and caregivers in a meaningful way (amongst others). Research, learning, and data analysis provided valuable insights into the initiative’s impact and effectiveness, guiding our decision-making and adaptation efforts as we progressed.

Q: Did any particular moments stand out to you regarding community involvement in the initiative?

A: One powerful moment was witnessing civil society organizations in northwest Syria come together to address the needs of children via a task force mechanism. We saw the impact of this collaboration after the 2023 earthquake in Syria and Turkey, when members of the ECD task force in Syria came together to prioritize children, families, and ECD in the EQ response, acknowledging early childhood is a critical part of front-line emergency response efforts. This collective movement demonstrated the impact of community involvement and collaboration.

Q. How has the SDGL program helped to shape your professional journey?

A: SDGL was transformative for me as a leader and as a person. It helped me to create tactics and strategies I could incorporate into strategic design in my career (including Ahlan Simsim). But, more importantly, it gave me a creative outlet to explore. At a strategic level, this would be how design fits into my life and work. Ahlan Simsim is a huge initiative. We operated across four countries in MENA to create a substantial library of content and approaches to support child development. Our teams were spread out all over the world, and we faced a fair number of challenges over the years. I (constantly) drew upon what I was learning in SDGL to help me think through ways of working, team structures, creative ways of engaging, and (one of my favorites) experiential design methods to improve upon our materials and the way we approach things like new program design for future growth. Throughout the program and beyond, I’ve always told the Academic Director of MS in Strategic Design for Global Leadership Melissa Rancourt, the Director of this degree, that my team served as an incubator while I was in school.

One of the prominent challenges the humanitarian sector faces today is the need for innovative problem-solving. My experiences in the program have equipped me with a unique set of skills and perspectives to address these challenges. One class that really stuck with me was Managing Creative Projects and Teams with Part-time Assistant Professor Roger Miletic. This was really where things started to click. There was one activity in particular, where half of the group was blindfolded while the other half needed to (verbally) guide their partner to reach their final destination. There was something about this experience of losing my sight and trusting someone else to navigate me, then switching to leading someone else, that I will never forget. I think this is where the “unlearning” started for me, to really set my creativity free. The course’s focus on play also encouraged me to incorporate playfulness into the workplace, something that has become a fundamental part of my team’s meetings and interactions to foster creativity and support team cohesiveness.

Q: Any last thoughts?

A: One of our SDGL professors told us early on in the course, “Design or be designed for.” The potency of this small reflection is just one example of the transformative power of design thinking. We are all agents of change—and it’s better to be that by choice. My experiences during (and since) the course have allowed me to take ownership of design as an ethos. I begin and end my day with design. Whether it be to implement design principles into my professional life, how I approach what comes next for me, or the experiences I want to have on a given day, design has taught me there is magic when we reframe our world a little through the lens of potential, and then connect to that by asking good questions. With that approach, nothing is off-limits.

Read about Marianne’s award-winning work: 

Transforming Tomorrow: Innovative Solutions for Children in Crisis: IRC
Insights from the Ahlan Simsim Scaling Journey (IRC)
Remote Learning can work for Preschoolers (MIT Technology Review)
Ahlan Simsim Initiative (Sesame Workshop)

Hear her talk about her experience: 

Audacious Philanthropy: Innovation, Risk, and Partnership in Education (Alliance Magazine)