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Three Lessons Learned From Startups

The social sector embraces lean startup principles

by Lily Mathews last modified Apr 08, 2014 10:22 AM
The nonprofit sector has definitely come under examination in the last few years. From the increased focus on talent development, to the TED manifesto on warped charity perceptions, to the catchy Tumblr that brought to life nonprofit workers’ deepest frustrations: the social sector is finally in the limelight. Some would say part of this change is attributed to the Lean Impact movement...
Three Lessons Learned From Startups
Feb 04, 2014 Impact Opportunities, Resources

The nonprofit sector has definitely come under examination in the last few years. From the increased focus on talent development, to the TED manifesto on warped charity perceptions, to the catchy Tumblr that brought to life nonprofit workers’ deepest frustrations: The social sector is finally in the limelight. Some would say part of this change is attributed to the Lean Impact movement.

Several Net Impact staff recently attended and judged the Lean for Social Good Summit, where we heard a number of case studies about Lean principles in action. These principles are based off values from the startup world where iteration and piloting triumph over toiling away at one product or idea for years on end.

To bring these ideas to life, we heard from a number of folks putting these principles into practice every day. A few lessons of note:

1. Perfectionism can be death.

One of the basic principles of the Lean Impact movement is the MVP – or, minimum viable product. It’s a direct response to the idea that organizations spend too much time dragging their feet finalizing a service or product without ever getting client feedback. Creating a minimal viable product lets you see if an idea is in demand before you waste months on the wrong product.

Successful nonprofits often take this approach. Code for America, an organization that harnesses the Internet and technology to help governments work better, partnered with the city of South Bend, Oregon, to tackle the demolition and rehabilitation of foreclosed housing stock. Understanding that community identities were at stake, the Code for America team moved swiftly, speaking one-on-one with citizens before launching a text app that enabled residents to give immediate feedback on whether certain properties should be saved. Through subsequent conversations, the team realized that many older residents couldn’t embrace the texting technology. Instead, they pivoted and launched a model utilizing an old fashioned telephone with much better results. Code for America’s overall success was tied to their willingness to try, listen, pivot, and re-launch something quickly.

Chasing perfectionism can be paralyzing for nonprofits that are battling social and environmental issues. Establish your MVPs and then get iterative feedback as you go.

2. Data is a double-edged sword.

Speakers had a lot to say about data in the social sector – particularly the overreliance on vanity metrics. You know the ones: numbers of members served, events held, or Facebook likes instead of actionable metrics that demonstrate the effectiveness of your mission. Part of this problem, speakers admitted, has been the nonprofit perspective that they are beholden to funders to show large numbers. And yet some of the funders in attendance, such as Anne Marie Burgoyne of the Emerson Collective, explained that the expectations between foundation and fundee can be more fluid than originally thought. With proper communication and honesty, goals can often be flexible.

On a related note, Lean organizations understand that less data-driven objectives can also be very important. A great example? Black Girls Code, whose founder Kimberly Bryant won top prize from the judges, describes its goals in two parts – one, to serve one million girls of color, and two, to become the “Girl Scouts of technology.” In many ways, the second part is stronger and more evocative of what the organization is striving to achieve.

3. You need to talk to your people.

At Net Impact, we’re lucky to have a pulse on our members through our incredible chapter network and annual conference, but we can always do more. Summit speakers reiterated that talking to constituents regularly is important, an idea reflected in one of the core Lean Impact framework steps: “Get out of the building.” This was especially important for Grameen Foundation’s Taroworks, a mobile data collection tool that stores and analyzes data for organizations with poor connectivity in remote regions. According to Grameen’s Emily Tucker, who won the audience choice award, “We always have to get out of the building, and then get out of the building again.” While Grameen Foundation works with employees in offices around the world, to do great work they must also listen to people in the local communities who are served by the international offices.

Hearing these speakers, it was clear that a tremendous amount of inspiring work in the social sector today is driven by lean principles. As Net Impact sets out to be bolder in the years to come, we’ll happily keep this framework in our back pocket.

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