Most associations rely on informal processes for moving innovation forward within their organizations finds a new study, Pathways to Innovation: Shifting from Informal to Intentional. The majority of new ideas and initiatives come from staff with the CEO and senior leadership leading most efforts. Many of these ideas are adapted from other organizations.
We are innovative
It was surprising that most of the association executives who were interviewed described their association as innovative. This runs counter to the prevalent narrative that associations struggle with innovation and change, Yet few organizations are taking a member-centric approach to creating new programs and services that meet their members’ unmet needs.
Informal market research processes
The majority of associations interviewed also rely on informal market research processes. As other studies have found, they have few formal mechanisms for regular review of their portfolio of offerings and find it challenging to sun set programs and initiatives.
Three primary foci of innovation projects
Current innovation projects of the associations interviewed clustered in three primary areas: upgrading internal technology systems, building online learning programs and shifting to shorter, more targeted events.
Download the full report, Pathways to Innovation: Shifting from Informal to Intentional.
Nonprofit organizations are frequently under pressure to scale up their programs. Scalability and replicability are assumed to be a natural goal. When your program is having a positive impact on the people it is designed for, why would you not want to reach more people?
Yet there are some big assumptions built into this model. The first is that growth is always good. Our culture worships growth. The economy is only considered healthy when it is growing. A successful career is one moving up in responsibility and scope. A website wants to grow its readership. A podcast wants more listeners. Yet should this always be the goal? Are there alternatives to growing larger in scale? What about going deeper?
Are nonprofits like machines?
Another is that nonprofits and their programs are like machines. The basic assumption for being able to scale and replicate is that the program is essentially similar to a widget. You should be able to document the basic elements of a program, train new people to deliver it, create it in a new location and the logic follows that you will then get the same outcomes in the new environment.
Can you franchise a nonprofit program?
Many nonprofits follow this model -- Habitat for Humanity, City Year, Teach for America. It borrows from the for-profit sector concept of a franchise. Yet can a nonprofit really be franchised? Can you standardize the program and deliver equivalent outcomes in the new arena? Can you really just hit copy and paste when you are dealing with people?
Nonprofits as Human Systems
Yet nonprofit programs are not machines. They are inherently human systems. They are built with people with certain skills, talents and abilities to deliver a program. Delivering that program happens in a particular social context. The original participants bring a specific set of circumstances, attitudes and abilities. These all interact to create a unique mix. They have more in common with the uniqueness of snowflakes than widgets or hamburgers.
Another analogy that comes to mind is a play - each performance is unique even though the script and the players are the same. Similar, sure, but unique.
Usually the goal of these types of program is some type of transformation. To transform people's lives in some way -- Such as building young leaders or increasing educational attainment or creating self-sufficient home owners of low income families. Transformation has little to do with creating new exact copies of the original (widgets, hamburger, t-shirts).
What has your experience with scaling? What has worked and what hasn’t?
To discuss the strategic issues your organization is facing, inquire about a free coaching call.
This question helps you uncover the assumptions embedded in an idea. Often assumptions for programs and services are hidden in three key areas: audience, problem and solution. For the idea to be a good one, you need to have found the right audience, correctly identified an important problem and designed a solution that is viable.
Let me give you an example. Using a design thinking approach to design new offerings for key segments of our organization’s audience, a team I led at my last association was able to design experiments that gave us feedback in each of these three key areas.
In one instance, we had designed a program for one audience segment. After we tested the idea with the target audience and received positive feedback, we proceeded to run a pilot. After successfully offering the program to one segment the association’s audience, we were able to replicate it for another audience.
Often this area is the most likely to trip you up. Have you identified a problem that is worth solving? Or a problem that is really critical for your target audience? Or is it just something that would be nice to solve? When hard choices are made about time, money and energy, this challenge gets put on the back burner.
To test our understanding of the problem, we wrote a problem statement or description of what we thought the problem was. For example: “association professionals often have a clear understanding of the views of their highly engaged volunteers, but are not sure that these reflect their average member.” Through our experiments, we were able to get feedback on how important each issue was. With feedback we were able to eliminate a number of ideas that addressed problems that were not seen as critical.
When is the last time you got caught up in your idea and created something more elaborate than was really needed? In one case of one program we were testing with members, during the brainstorming stage, the design team had envisioned an executive leadership development program with an extensive online wrap around component. After testing and customer feedback, we learned that members were interested in the in-person aspect of the program. They doubted, however, that they would use the online components. Thus with a short testing period, we were able to eliminate a costly aspect of the program that would have be time consuming and resource intensive to create. It would have also necessitated increasing the program price, yet our research showed it did not provide sufficient value.
By testing early, getting feedback from customers we were able to learn and iterate, saving money and staff time by eliminating options that sounded promising at the white board but proved to have faulty assumptions.
Want to talk about how this might apply to your organization? Request a free coaching session.
An influential volunteer has an idea. They just came back from a conference and heard about an initiative another organization is doing. They think it would be perfect for your organization. When they describe the idea it sounds really intriguing. There is revenue potential and it promises to more fully engage your constituents. Your board and/or senior staff have a conversation about the idea and decide a staff person should put together a business plan. The staff person works on it and the projections look really promising. A staff team is pulled together and their other projects are put on the back burner. As the initiative gets closer to launch, a communications and marketing plan is put together. The initiative launches with lots of internal fan fare. And then….
What went wrong?
Crickets. Very few people enroll. Internal discussion concludes that it must be the messaging. Marketing messages are tweaked and a new set of email blasts are designed and scheduled. But interest and enrollment remain low. What went wrong?
Lean Start Up
The lean start up approach is designed to address this common problem. People falling in love with their own ideas, settling on a wonderful sounding solution without really understanding the problem they are solving for the members or constituents they are trying to serve. Eric Ries created the method with the intent to shift entrepreneurs energy from developing elaborate business plans to ‘getting out of the building” and testing their assumptions with customers. Because it focuses on managing risk and conserving resources it is a good fit for resource poor nonprofits.
Build, Measure, Learn
Lean start up helps you answer the question – how do we know what is actually worth working on? Based on three major steps – build, measure, learn, you create a minimally viable product instead of a business plan; identify assumptions by asking the question – what needs to be true for this to be a good idea and then design brief experiments to test these assumptions. Once the experiments are complete and you assess your results and learn from it. Does the evidence point to continuing with your idea as is? Or do you need to pivot? Or do you perhaps need to drop the idea and not expend any further resources on it?
In the example above, instead of proceeding with a business plan and then immediately into launching a project team to build out the idea, the team would instead identify the assumptions inherent in the idea and then design experiments to test these assumptions with customers.
Unearthing Your Assumptions
Where traditional program design approaches have emphasized careful and lengthy planning, lean start up emphasizes experiments. In the past, new ideas were often based on intuition and anecdotes. Unfortunately these hunches were rarely tested with the audience they were designed for. Instead lean start up moves from an idea to gathering feedback almost immediately. Like the example at the beginning, many organizations have emphasized the ‘big launch’ after a closed or even secret design process. Lean start up focuses on the iterative process – getting feedback quickly and learning from it.
Think this might be a good approach for your organization and want to learn more? Get in touch with me for a complementary coaching session.
I help the helpers. When a major disaster happens or tragedy in the news, a video from Mr. Rogers often makes the rounds on social media. His mom told him to look for the helpers. I will be way further off to the side than what he describes--not even on camera. Instead I will be in conference and project rooms of
nonprofits and associations that either serve the helpers or directly serve marginalized people. I will be working with those helpers to make their organizations healthier, to be more strategic, and innovative.
Why do people do it that way?
I have worked in the nonprofit sector almost my entire career. Over time I learned that while the mission always motivated me, I was more interested in how people did what they did – how they worked together. And what got in their way. They were all trying to have a positive impact in the world. Why did it seem like such a struggle much of the time? I read lots of books and ultimately went back to graduate school to try and get some insight into that question. I learned about how groups and teams work, how to design organizations, how to create strategy, how to cultivate innovation and the importance of organizational culture. And much more.
Making the values real
I believe nonprofits are more likely to have a greater mission impact if their ‘inside’ matches their outside --when the values they espouse for the change they want to see in the world match how they treat each other and go about their work. I believe that these organizations can be great places to work AND have a great impact. They don’t have to choose between those two.
Turning down the static
By being internally healthy, the organization turns down the static in their system. If the people investing their life to achieve these important missions are freed up from expending energy on internal inefficiency or supporting a poorly performing team, they are then able to apply that critical energy on achieving their goals.
Tapping the group's brilliance
One way to turn down the static is to get clear on the organization’s strategy. Being clear and focused on where you want to go, what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it taps into the brilliance and energy of the group. The challenges these organizations are facing require innovation. Yesterday’s solutions are not sufficient. And for innovation to work the organization’s culture needs to be open to it and create space for creativity, experimentation and even failure.
This type of work plays on my strengths. I am good at seeing connections and simplifying a lot of detail into a few big goals. I love working with people to help them figure out new and better ways of doing things. To offer people structures and processes to make manageable what otherwise might feel very overwhelming and impossible to tackle. I love helping groups imagine new futures and then helping people realize those.
By investing in women and children, communities improve. Families' health improve. Women invest in those around them and they contribute to a virtuous circle. By serving those who work to support thriving families, communities and a sustainable economy, I can also contribute to this virtuous circle.
I am here to be a catalyst, like a river current that propels people along in their good work so that they can do it with more ease. People want to be happy and engaged at work and do work that matters. Yet not lose themselves in the pursuit of that work – no more martyrs to the cause. I want to help that come alive in the world.
Want to talk about how you might apply this at your organization? Book a coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.