Can Small Experiments Test Nonprofit Strategic Validity?

Can Small Experiments Test Nonprofit Strategic Validity?

By: Eugene H. Fram

When given a series of potential mission changes, modifications or opportunities, most nonprofit boards take the following steps: (1) Discuss alternatives (2) Develop working plans, board/staff presentations and funding proposals (3) All three usually are packaged into a three or five year strategic plan for implementation. Typically the process can take about six months to “get all stakeholders on board.” When something new is suggested, the conservative board and nonprofit management immediately respond, “Great idea, let’s consider it in the new strategic plan.” Results: It can take three to five years to implement the idea, assuming the plan actually gets off the shelf, not an unusual occurrence for nonprofit organizations!


Another alternative being implemented by some nonprofit is to use a rapid experimentation approach called Lean. “First developed for use in the for-profit world, … the method focuses on new ideas for products through iterative experiments. Lean practitioners build simple prototypes ‘called minimum viable products (MVPs),’ …move quickly to get feedback on these items from constituents/stakeholders.” * As long as they have some positive iterations they continue to full product development.

Example: The software division of a large firm suggested a program that it felt certain would have great marketability because of it perceived uniqueness. The software developers were required to present it personally to a small group of potential customers. As a result of the interviews, both marketing and development executives dropped it.

How Can Nonprofit Boards Utilize Lean Experimentation?

These lean experiments can be conducted at minimum costs and with small samples that initially may not be statistically significant. (For example, in the software case cited above, there were only four customers in the sample, but they were significant ones.)

Not being able to afford the time and money to develop excellent metrics, nonprofit boards, especially in assessing ambiguous and qualitative impacts, need to initially glean what they can from the use of imperfect metrics. (http://bit.ly/OvF4ri). The metrics can be anecdotal, subjective, interpretive or qualitative. For most nonprofits, it is a great leap forward from doing nothing or taking years to implement action. Also why was time in offering a client centered opportunity? The most critical requirement is that the directors and management agree that the process is reasonable and that outcomes from each experimental iteration constitute fair and trustworthy information.

A Current Example

There seems to be a growing body of knowledge of how to apply the art of lean in the nonprofit environment. * The use of lean to assess the proper venues to select social media by which to communicate with donors and other stakeholders is an example. All agree that the use of various social media venues is difficult to assess for both for-profits and nonprofits.

Here, as an example, is what might be done to obtain some directions on using social venues to reach millennials. Charitable nonprofits are seeking ways to communicate with this group as potential volunteers and future donors. Instead of a board waiting to take action on a broad social media strategy before taking some action on social media, it might start with some small-scale, low cost experiments. The information it obtains from one or two MPVs would be useful in backing into a comprehensive social media strategy when a new strategic plan is needed. But an early MPV also might provide some information for immediate action.

Summary: Like any management process lean is not a panacea for either the business or nonprofit sectors. It has its advantages and disadvantages and will not replace more rigorous process, when required–longitudinal studies and strategic planning. However, its experimental design feature can help drive the nonprofit decision process to be more effective and efficient. That alone can help to recruit more able directors, who because of time-compressed lifestyles, now are impatient with the traditional pace of nonprofit decision-making.

* For a robust report of the use of lean in the nonprofit sector see: Peter Murray & Steve Ma (2015) “The Promise of Lean Experimentation,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, summer, 14pp. (http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_promise_of_lean_experimentation)

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