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Lean Startup and Impact Philosophy Falls Short in the Nonprofit Sector

Social-Media-for-Nonprofits (1)

When is it appropriate to edit your nonprofit? When is it time to cut programs and make changes to your structure, and how do you go about making those changes?

I posed this question a while back, offering some guidance for nonprofits finding themselves in this position while alluding to some experience with the subject.

To offer full transparency, I’d like to share the specifics of my experience.

Last month we hosted Nonprofit Boot Camp and made a surprise announcement: we were putting the event on indefinite hiatus.

Whether or not this program will come back is impossible to predict at this time (though I’d like to think it can), but I wanted to share with you the reasoning behind this decision, in the hopes that others in the sector can avoid having to learn – as I did – the hard way.

The decision to take on Nonprofit Bootcamp was made in 2012. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’ve come to realize it was a bad decision for our organization.

I have spent the better part of the past year revisiting that decision, rethinking the program, talking to industry leaders, reflecting and meditating on whether I can really do justice to this program and community.

Here’s what I've learned:

Beware Emotional Decisions. I made the decision to take over Nonprofit Boot Camp and run it under the Social Media for Nonprofits umbrella without fully considering all other factors at play. I’d been involved with the Nonprofit Boot Camp run by Craigslist Foundation as a volunteer and also as a contractor. I credit that program for my robust start in the SF Bay Area nonprofit community, and I had an emotional and historical connection to it.

I’d found out Craigslist Foundation was set to close the day before it was to happen. Over the next two to three weeks, I made the decision to take the program on. My emotional attachment to the program and the impact it had on me colored my view of the situation. What's worse, I was also traveling and under a tremendous amount of stress at the time, making me more susceptible to an emotional decision.

I did not allow enough time to weigh everything that needs to be weighed when making a decision like that, and I did not take a step away and separate my personal bond with the program from its potential role in SM4NP.

Ask The Big Questions. In taking on a new program like that, it would have made sense to consider whether or not I had the expertise to not only continue it, but to scale it. It would have made sense to ask how Nonprofit Boot Camp fit into our current programming, how that would be communicated or even whether I had the deep knowledge needed about this particular space.

I didn't ask the big questions, and I believe it's because I had the wrong hat on.

I wore my hat of event planner and primarily looked at whether or not could I do another event in addition to my existing 12-13 events. As an event planner, the answer was an easy yes.

I didn’t look at it as a marketing professional and consider the ramifications of communicating two very diverse programs to two completely different demographics; one is geared towards marketing professionals and the other towards everyone else in a nonprofit organization.

I didn't look at it from the perspective of my community. Is this what they want? Does taking on this added responsibility serve them?

Instead I banked on my past experience of creating and managing successful events around the globe and assumed it would be much the same. I just leapt. The cost was trying to reconcile two very different programs in scope and style. It was a huge drain on resources because one didn’t lead to the other. They each attracted completely different audiences.

Looking forward, I know I can wear a multitude of hats in any given situation. The leadership opportunity is to be discerning about which hat to wear and even to demand the time for myself and my team to examine the situation from all our viewpoints of expertise.

Have The Resources. That might sound ridiculous, since it’s the nonprofit battle cry, and something we are always struggling with and overcoming. But there’s a difference between treading water and being under water.

With my event planner hat on, I assumed I knew the resources needed to present Nonprofit Boot Camp. I did not realize the program would not fit inside our very successful, tested and tried SM4NP model. In fact, the amount of time and resources it takes to produce this program is equal to the time/resources to produce three or four other events around the globe – and those leaner events are a lot more profitable.

Beside the purely logistical needs of the program, I did not look at the expectations of the community. I now know that it takes several times more work and revenue to meet the minimum expectations of nonprofit professionals for an event like this, let alone to thrive and scale. For a tiny nonprofit with two (albeit mighty) full-time staffers, we just don’t have the capacity to continue without compromising quality on all our programs.

The Risks of Failure. The biggest lesson of the past year, as a new nonprofit executive, has been understanding the depth and weight of the responsibility I shoulder.

I started in the for-profit sector, in Silicon Valley, and the way failure is perceived there is very different from the way it is perceived in the nonprofit sector. In the for-profit sector and especially the startup and the tech ecosystem, there’s a positive association with failing. “Failing forward,” they say, recognizing that failure promotes growth. In the commercial sector, the person you let down most is yourself – but you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back to business, lessons learned.

In the nonprofit sector, failure has very high stakes. It’s not just YOU that you let down. It’s your constituents, your donors, partners, sponsors and institutional funders – the entire community.

I’m not saying you can never take risks, but the kinds of risks encouraged in the for-profit sector with much touted, lean startup models are not advisable in the nonprofit sector. Any risks in our sector must be so much more calculated.

In the social sector, when you fail, you don’t fail and move on – you fail an entire community of stakeholders and that’s a lot of weight to carry.

There is one more risk in failure: its personal toll. We actually examined this at Nonprofit Boot Camp this year.

I want this to be a productive failure. It would be easy to berate myself. To wallow in a pity party – but that wouldn’t really accomplish anything, would it?

I’m not happy that this happened – understand that – but I AM grateful. It was a hard way to learn a valuable lesson, but my hope is that this serves as food for thought for social enterprise and nonprofit leaders who are themselves considering starting new nonprofits or programs. My advice for you is this:

  • Take as much time as you need to think through all the points mentioned above. If you find yourself with a shortage of time or false deadlines, then don’t start or take on something new until you’ve had the full opportunity to think it through.
  • Talk to stakeholders – they know better than you what it will take to meet expectations
  • Ensure that you are fulfilling a need in the community and have everything you need to meet that need
  • Experiment with lean startup and minimum viable product models in limited scopes –defined projects like a new website or app development, not overall nonprofit direction.

We have incredible challenges that we are trying to overcome with just as incredibly small resources. When we are frivolous with those, it’s hard to wear the failure as a badge of honor because those small resources could’ve fed someone or clothed someone. All decisions in our sector must be meaningful and thoughtful.

RituSharma_Headshot1-e1400655363204The preceding is a guest post by Ritu Sharma, the CEO and Co-Founder of Social Media for Nonprofits, an organization committed to bringing social media education to nonprofits worldwide. She convenes thought-leaders and leading practitioners in the social media space in the unique TED meet Twitter style conferences in 14 cities in three countries. She speaks frequently around the world on a variety of topics in the nonprofit and social media spheres with a passion for effecting social change through social technologies. She writes a blog at the Huffington Post on the intersection of social media, social change and leadership. Follow Ritu at LinkedIn or on Twitter at @ritusharma1

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice