Lean Impact Series: 10 Changemakers Using Lean Startup Methods For Greater Social Impact | Beth's Blog

Lean Impact Series: 10 Changemakers Using Lean Startup Methods For Greater Social Impact


Note from Beth:
Last week during the Google Hangout hosted by the Packard Foundation,  someone asked me “What’s Next?”    After spending five years living and breathing networks and measurement and designing and delivering many, many nonprofit capacity building programs,  my focus is going to be on how nonprofits can apply measurement and their networks to learn for impact.

As part of this deep dive, I’ve been getting lots of inspiration from the start up and innovation movements here in Silicon Valley (and elsewhere), especially the work of Peter SimsLittle Bets. I’ve also been looking at ideas from the the Lean Start Up movement, ignited by Eric Ries, author of the Lean Start Up.       One of  the Lean Startup’s core concepts is build>measure>learn—the process that start ups follow to iterate and learn.  There has been a series of  “lean” books diving in the topics, including one on measurement called  Lean Analytics Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster by Alistair Croll and Ben Yoskovitz that I reviewed earlier this year.   And, there is also a Lean Start Up Conference taking place in December that I will cover on this blog, taking the lens of how to apply to nonprofit work.

The ideas and techniques in Lean Start Up movement also work for nonprofits and what some are calling “Lean Impact.”   Tomorrow,  the Lean Start Up is sponsoring a free web cast called, “Lean Impact: Implementing Lean Startup in Mission-driven Organizations.”  Christie George of New Media Ventures and Akash Trivedi of Kiva.org will discuss key Lean Impact approaches.

To help us learn more about how to apply Lean Start Up ideas to nonprofit causes and organizations,  Meg Rulli is the Social Media Director for Lean Impact and her colleagues will be contributing a regular blog post covering different aspects of the Lean Impact practices.   There arealso two Lean Impact Summits taking place, one in December in NYC and one in January in San Francisco (I’m a judge for the San Francisco event)

10 Changemakers Using Lean Startup Methods For Greater Social Impact by Meg Rulli

In 2011, Eric Ries published The Lean Startup, which challenges startup and business founders to build and run their companies in a new way – maximizing customer value and revenue while minimizing wasted effort.

Lean Startup principles have been adopted widely in other sectors, and once you get a glimpse of the principles, it’s clear that Lean can be applied to any organization that needs to operate in a capital-efficient way. It’s no wonder why Lean is increasingly being adopted in the non-profit sector.

Most non-profits and social good organizations are already “lean” by the traditional definition, but Lean here is different: it means organizations developing services, products and campaigns by starting small, soliciting user feedback along the way, ensuring they’re continually developing something that users want, running efficiently, and pivoting if necessary. The overall goal is to reduce waste: wasted time, wasted effort, and wasted money.

If you’re looking for examples of lean startups, there are hundreds. But but for social good organizations that want to go lean, there are scant few examples. That’s where Lean Impact comes in: highlighting the organizations using Lean for social good, and to share those examples and lessons with other social good organizations.

We’ve assembled 10 examples of leaders in the social good space working hard in their organizations to implement Lean Startup principles for maximum impact.

1. Patrice Martin, IDEO.org (Co-Lead & Creative Director)

IDEO.org works with nonprofits, social enterprises, and foundations to design solutions for social impact around the globe. When the IDEO team was working on a new financial tool for a project in Mexico, they used Lean Startup’s focus on Customer Development to test it with real potential customers. They created a fake ATM, then used an iPad to create the ATM “program”. As they watched people interact with the prototype ATM, the team was able to actually see potential customers using the application, and could identify areas of improvement.

Patrice Martin:  “Our team built two concepts and brought them to low-income Mexican households to get feedback. Though prototyping is something we often use, it still amazes me how powerful a tool it is. It was incredible to see these ideas quickly take shape, and we learned so much from bringing potential customers into the process…. Our concepts evolved a great deal by walking the Mexicans we met with through our prototypes and hearing their reactions. We were able to find out how quickly someone understood the idea, whether a certain feature made sense, and figure out which elements needed to change.” (IDEO.org)

2Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, Back to the Roots (Co-Founders)

Back to the Roots’ mission is to make food personal again through the passionate development of tools that educate and inspire, one family at a time. Their organization is focused on creating sustainable grow-at-home products and bringing them into households across the United States. For their first product, they bootstrapped it: they scraped together the small funds to create their first working prototype. After trial and error, they were able to grow one crop of sustainable mushrooms in an old paint bucket. Though it was nothing like the polished, beautiful products they produce today, it was enough to demonstrate their vision, get introductions to manufacturers and distribution channels, and create their successful Kickstarter campaign.

3. Deepa Bachu, Fasal (Creator)

Roughly 70% of India’s economy is tied to agriculture, but rural farmers often have little information about current market prices, which means they often sell below market value. Fasal was created to combat this issue. This free SMS-based program provides farmers with real-time price information, which allows them to sell their products at fair market prices or higher

Fasal started with an Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Instead of building out a full program to send daily automated SMS messages, the Fasal team selected a few farmers to test the program, and one of the team members sent SMS price alerts manually each day. They also started small and low-cost with the automated phone call system: instead of taking the time and money to build out interactive voice response technology, a Fasal team member recorded the “automated” voice behind the phone by reading call scripts. Once the team saw that the farmers were using the MVP system, they invested in and built out the full Fasal product infrastructure.

4Linda Robinson, Gateway Green (Board Chair)

Gateway Green is a project in Portland to turn a stretch of unused land into a multi-use bike park. The Gateway Green team ran a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, seeking $100,000 to begin work on the park. In addition to providing much-needed funds, the campaign would allow the Greater Greener team to validate their idea: if the campaign were successful, they could demonstrate to city officials that there was strong public support for this project.

5.  David Batstone, Not For Sale (Co-Founder and President)

Not For Sale is a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating slavery and human trafficking worldwide. The organization delivering services to people at risk and affected by trafficking, and integrates revenue streams into their service model.   One example of this is their “Home” Soup program, which provides affected or at-risk women economic opportunities and social services, and has a built-in revenue stream:
Survivors of exploitation are taught culinary skills and learn to make soup in a professional kitchen. They also learn professional and language skills in order to enable them to find meaningful employment.

  1. The soup is sold to women working “behind the windows” in Amsterdam’s red light district.
  2. By selling and bringing soup, Not For Sale develops relationships with the women. The women find out about the culinary training program and become aware of other accessible opportunities outside of the sex trade.
  3. Through partnerships, Not For Sale also sells the soup commercially in grocery stores and other businesses, creating a revenue stream that funds its operations.

6. Susmita De, Nonprofit-Share (Chief Operating Officer)

Nonprofit-Share is making it easy for social sector professionals to find each other, learn from one another, form mutually beneficial relationships and come together to better serve local communities and build a more effective nonprofit sector. Throughout their development, they have placed high importance on gathering continuous customer feedback, and by using technology effectively to more efficient.

Now, with Nonprofit-Share currently in Beta and with their upcoming launch, the organization is working to grow the Nonprofit-Share family of believers and are applying Lean Startup principles to build an even bigger team of people that is invested in the outcome: a better social sector.

7. Kyle Rush,  Author and Technology Consultant

During the 2012 Obama Campaign, the online team continually tested and refined their communications efforts. They ran over 500 A/B tests over 20 months, with the goal of focusing on what works. Their efforts yielded a donation conversion increase of 49% and increasing sign-up conversions by 161%. One test in particular focused on design and photography, using splash pages for a contest called “Dinner with Barack”.

Kyle Rush:  “We had so many great pictures of the previous Dinner with Barack that we wanted to see which performed the best. In the following test we had two photos. The first was a medium shot of the President at the dinner table, but it didn’t have much context as nothing was in view/focus. Previous tests showed that large photos with focus on the President increased conversions. The second photo had a wider frame that revealed the First Lady and two dinner guests. We hoped that users would be more likely to convert if they could see just how close they would be sitting to the President of the United States during dinner. By changing the photo on the splash page we lifted conversions by more than 19%.” (kylerush.net)

8. Kosar Jahan, SamaUSA (Impact Manager)

SamaUSA helps low-income community college students learn the skills necessary to gain access to online jobs. Instead of spending months or years developing a program, SamaUSA launched with a Minimum Viable program (MVP): a 10-week training program and a first cohort of 20 students. The SamaUSA team sought feedback from the participants all along the way, including after the program as they looked for jobs. With feedback from the students, and continual feedback from current students going through later programs, the SamaUSA team iterates and adjusts the program so that each round is better than the previous one.

To learn more about how SamaUSA implemented Lean Startup, check out Kosar’s speech at our San Francisco Lean Impact Launch party this past May.

9Vanessa Hurst, Girl Develop It (Co-Founder)

Girl Develop It is an international organization, certified by the Board of Education, that provides hands-on instruction and mentorship for women and girls who want to learn coding. They launched with a very simple Minimum Viable Product (MVP): a meetup to learn HTML. By implementing the Build-Measure-Learn process espoused in Lean Startup, Girl Develop It developed a course outline, materials, and funding model.

To learn more about how Girl Develop It implemented Lean Startup, check out Vanessa’s speech at our San Francisco Lean Impact Launch party this past May.

10. Ashley Meyers, Code For America (Development and Engagement Manager)

Code for America helps governments become more connected, participatory, and more Lean through new opportunities for public service. Code for America adopted an outstanding Lean Startup software development strategy: experiment, fail early, learn quickly – then iterate, and repeat. What started as an “peace corps for geeks” MVP has grown into a national organization building a network of cities, citizens, community groups, and startups, all equally committed to reimagining government for the 21st century.

To learn more about how Code For America implemented Lean Startup, check out Ashley’s speech at our San Francisco Lean Impact Launch party this past May.

Is Your Nonprofit Using Lean Start Up Methods for Lean Impact?

These leaders are just few examples of nonprofits and social good using Lean Startup methodologies.    Is your nonprofit applying the concepts of Lean Impact?  If you’re not sure what it all means, pick up your copy of the The Ultimate Dictionary of Lean for Social Good and learn all the Lean terms you need to get started.

Meg Rulli, Social Media Director at Lean Impact

Meg Rulli is the Social Media Director for Lean Impact and co-founded Sticky Marketing, which focuses on helping social good enterprises, small businesses & startups stand out and make an impact in their communities.



8 Responses

  1. Serena says:

    This article of Lean Impact organizations who have demonstrated success is really fascinating! It illustrates how non-profit organizations can transition through Lean Impact practices to become more economical and efficient- by modeling their businesses after Lean Impact directives. These 10 business profiles demonstrate that their is a fiscal advantage to cutting back on waste in all manners throughout an organization and demonstrate one of the most significant concepts in marketing & business today: to apply a practice, listen for feed back, and ADAPT. Going “Lean” today really means that a company has a truly strong understanding of their brand, product, & target markets to a degree that allows them to fine-tune their business practices, reducing waste across all fronts!

  2. I would love to hear and talk more about Nonprofit-Share (Beth, maybe a guest post at some point there?) 🙂 and I’m also intrigued by examples of large organizations that are using lean start-up principles and practices within elements of their work; I’m thinking of a particular organization I work with here, that has a real culture of experimentation, and which is in the process of developing an organizational decision/control structure that will allow teams to try out different processes (like A/B tests for advocacy alerts to volunteers, for example, or an instagram contest with teen anti-hunger champions) that wouldn’t necessarily be greeted with enthusiasm by others within the organization. I think it’s important that we not lull ourselves into thinking that ‘start-up’ has to mean entirely new organization, or that lean can’t be synonymous with large.

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