Disrupting the Nonprofit Sector

NTC 2013; photo courtesy JD Lasica.
NTC 2013; photo courtesy JD Lasica.

by Caroline Avakian

The 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference, which took place recently in DC, is a conference that so many nonprofit tech and communications staffers look forward to every year because of the great sessions, useful tips and tools, and awesome people committed to using technology to advance social good.

I was pretty excited when I saw that there was a “Disrupting the Nonprofit Sector” session. I like forward-thinking panels of this type because I look to conferences for two things: practical tools and updates on my sector that I can use straightaway on Monday morning, and importantly, sessions on the future of our sector.

Here are some of the high-level thoughts and takeaways from the “Disrupting the Nonprofit Sector” session hosted by Amy Sample Ward, CEO, NTEN, Allyson Kapin, Partner, Rad Campaign, and Sheila Katz, Director, Ask Big Questions, Hillel International.

There are currently 1.5 million nonprofits in the US – that’s 60% growth in 10 years. That’s certainly great news but the bad news is that it is estimated that nonprofit giving will not get back to pre-recession levels until about 2018.

13 ways nonprofits are keeping up

So how are nonprofits supposed to keep up? One of the ways nonprofits are staying afloat is by innovating and adding alternative revenue streams.

Here are 13 ways they’re doing it:

      1. They are thinking like a startup and using lean startup principles – fail cheap, fail quick, fail often.
      2. Amy Sample Ward gave the example of how at NTEN, failure is great. They’re just trying to do things differently which isn’t failure. They encourage failure but with zero mistakes. There’s a big difference.
      3. The advice to nonprofits looking to innovate is that the money needs to be there first. Think like an investor. So, if the program fails, you’re not caught in a bad situation.
      4. Get feedback on your new project or innovation. Start small and test. In nonprofit lingo, this would translate into conducting a pilot project and then working on your proof of concept.
      5. Be OK with the messiness of innovation.
      6. Buy-in for your new innovation or project has to come from the top. If the top is ok with seeing this as an experiment and is comfortable with the possibility of failure, then there’s less finger-pointing. But if senior management doesn’t really believe in it, it can easily put people on the defensive.
      7. Make innovation part of your annual budget. Make a new line item for it every year. It will set the stage for innovation to become part of your organization’s work.
      8. All your nonprofit stakeholders need to be involved in your experimentation. Include your board members! Ask yourself how are they part of the conversation from the beginning, so that they’re integrated and feel part of the success or the failure.
      9. Ask yourself before you start: What do we do with the failures when they come?
      10. If we’re going to start scaling a project or innovation broadly, it has to come from the field-level. Take a risk on grassroots ideas.
      11. There are nonprofit cultures that allow for collaboration and failure. How can you create this type of culture in your organization so innovation and failure becomes part of your organization’s value-system?
      12. Be honest: It’s great that people want to experiment but you have to be realistic about your expectations. For example, you’re not going to raise a ton of money online if you haven’t grown an existing network of supporters.
      13. Find pilot programs at nonprofits that have been successful and connect to those folks. Talk to them about how they did and what are the lessons-learned and take-aways.

Are you innovating within your organization? Intra-preneurs abound everywhere – tell us your story!

Caroline Avakian, a Socialbrite partner, is a social media strategist in the New York City area with a focus on strategic communications, content marketing, blogging and training. Contact Caroline by email carolineavakian at gmail dot com, see her profile page, visit her website, follow her on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment.

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