The Trevor Project

I worked with The Trevor Project on their biggest strategic initiative of their 2016 fiscal year: The Southern Initiative. I helped them to more deeply understand and better serve the needs of youth in the southern region of the US. I helped them create new programming and outreach strategies by using design strategy, user research, and lean experimentation methods.

The Problem.

The Trevor Project is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide crisis intervention and suicide prevention to LGBTQ youth (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, and Questioning). The Trevor Project wanted to increase their focus on the Southeastern part of the US for several reasons. The South has among the highest suicide rates relative to other parts of the country. And the staff knew anecdotally that a lot of young people in the South are facing a backlash now that LGBTQ issues have become more prevalent in the press. And their hypothesis was that the people who needed their help the most were often unaware of their organization.

The Trevor Project typically does a lot of their outreach through schools, community organizations, and with healthcare providers. However, their challenge is that LGBTQ topics (and even mental health topics) are often not discussed in the South in those places. They were in unfamiliar territory, and they new they needed to experiment with new approaches.


When Dawn heard about what The Trevor Project was trying to accomplish, she knew it would be perfect marriage between Lean Start Up methods and this project. After all, every non-profit’s goal is to reduce risk and maximize success with limited resources.

Dawn worked closely with Steve Mendelsohn, Deputy Executive Director of The Trevor Project to gather insights, the first key step to rapid experimentation. Steve says, “When I started work on the Southern Initiative, I found it to be a daunting task. I didn’t know which way to turn. How would I ever come up with some testable ideas? Then I met Dawn, and she shared with me the Rapid Experimentation Workshop process. It was brilliant. Under Dawn’s guidance, we identified questions and assumptions about what we needed to learn, and we interviewed many people to get insight into the problem we were addressing.”

To get to key insights, Dawn interviewed 9 LGBTQ young adults and 3 adults who work with LGBTQ youth in the South. One of the issues they uncovered was the severity of the tragic link between homelessness and lack of family support in the South. One of the people they interviewed, Rick, works for a non-profit organization dealing with homeless youth in Atlanta. He said, “We have all these wonderful images in the media, and the kids think it's okay to come out to their parents, and their friends, and their churches, and to be true to themselves. They do, and they're shunned. I've had kids that, the parents found out they were gay ... They've dropped them off on the expressway. Not even at an exit. I've had rural parents drive to Atlanta, telling the kids they're going on a trip, and put them out in the middle of Downtown.” Homelessness is a problem for LGBTQ youth in all of the US, but the severity of the issue in the South was a surprise. Rick said, “We know on any given night, there's 750 to 900 queer kids on the street in Atlanta. New York has 2000 to 3000, so the South is quickly becoming the epicenter of our next epidemic.”

After the team assembled their key insights by talking to their target population, Dawn ran 3 Rapid Experimentation workshops with the Trevor Project. We involved over 20 staff members and board members in the process. Chairman of the Board Michael Norton said, “The process was surprisingly efficient and effective, helping to tame the unwieldy space of blue sky possibilities into a very defined space of ideas that were targeted, strategic and actionable.”


As a result of the workshops, The Trevor Project teams created 11 experiments to test how to increase awareness of their services. The experiments the team designed range from social media campaigns on Tumblr and Instagram to on-the-ground work with religious leaders and schoolteachers.

The Trevor Project co-founder, James Lecesne says, "The biggest takeaway for me was how our assumptions can too easily direct our actions - and then those actions turn out not to be productive. The process taught me the value of gathering data, asking questions and challenging assumptions as the clear path to finding what will work. Rather than supporting already existing ideas about a situation, Dawn helped us explore new ways to see the situation clearly and accurately."

As an example, one of the experiments the team designed is to use Instagram to engage youth in the south in a dialog about their experiences. This experiment will help the team continue to learn and better understand the needs of the youth they are trying to reach, as well as test Instagram as a channel for increasing awareness and engagement. The experiment is based on the research insight that youth they feel more comfortable openly expressing themselves on Instagram than other social media platforms because there are fewer parents and adult figures monitoring their accounts.

The 11 experiments helped The Trevor Project plan and fund the resources needed to roll out an entire program the following fiscal year. Steve said, “Dawn did an excellent job, and thanks to her process, we are getting ready to test our ideas to see which will work and which need to be adjusted.” The 11 experiments were tracked and measured with analytics to prove out the viability of each idea and decide which would be the best use of the organization’s budget for the following fiscal year.