ARTICLE: How Lean Principles Guide Your Mission

January 3, 2019 Joe Gianoni

The most successful social good organizations are always learning and iterating to stay on top of their game, but exactly how they learn and iterate is crucial to their successes and failures and to their impact on the world. Ann Mei Chang, author of Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good joined Blackbaud’s Steve MacLaughlin in the latest episode of The sgENGAGE Podcast: Episode 81: Lean Principles for Social Good to talk about this process and what it looks like in the social good sector. During the discussion, Ann Mei shared insights from her book, including examples and lessons she learned after her career pivot from Silicon Valley to working in social good. 

One key point during the conversation revolves around changing the thought process that social good organizations need to have regarding their long-term strategy versus traditional definitions of impact. Ann notes that while the common measures of success for the sector – the number of people reached or dollars raised – are great indicators of short-term success, they do not necessarily translate into long-term impact and change. Instead, she believes that social good organizations should emphasize lean principles and model their development after tech companies, and shares success stories of this from USAID and Harambee Youth Accelerator. Thinking big, starting small, and rapidly iterating towards a goal needs to become the new norm in order for organizations to maximize their efforts.  

The following condensed excerpts from the interview highlight this theory and how organizations are successfully executing lean processes. 


What social good organizations can learn from Silicon Valley: 

Steve: And a lot of it has to do, like you said, around how is it that social good organizations think about innovation. And there’s a different mindset, if you will, and often a different sort of sense around the sense of time or pace or speed at which you have to go about that. Like you said, in Silicon Valley and in a lot of technology companies, let’s dream big, let’s have big ideas about what’s possible and then we’re going to try and start small or move in small increments towards that vision, and we want to move quickly. And oftentimes with social good organizations, both of those principles are really hard to apply, or at least traditionally have been hard to apply. Right? 

Ann: Yeah. I think that social good organizations face a lot of pressure to do exactly the opposite of this. On one hand, you know, nonprofits tend to plan within constraints, whether the constraint of their budget, their staff size, the duration and dollars involved in a grant proposal. And so they look at the constraints they have and they say, “what can I do?” Which is the opposite of Silicon Valley, which is really looking at what is the potential. How do I get to billions of people? How do I make billions of dollars? And then finding a path to get there.  

On the other side, social good organizations also often have so much pressure to deliver in the short term. Whether it’s because there’s just pressing needs in the world that really need to be addressed or because donors or themselves are really pushing to show short term results so that they can raise the next round of money or so they can issue a strong press release. And so there’s a lot of pressure to deliver and it makes it very hard for them to step back and spend the time to really experiment and refine and improve what they’re doing and investing in, which we call research and development or R&D. 


Ann’s experience at USAID: 

Ann: I was very fortunate to get this opportunity a few years back to join the join the US government at USAID, which is the foreign aid agency for the US government. It’s one of the largest organizations that’s really trying to tackle global poverty around the world. And what was really exciting, I thought of this is my dream job for me, because the lab was set up as this new bureau at the heart of USAID with this dual mission to identify breakthrough innovations and also transform the way that we do global development itself. And I thought it was a perfect opportunity to finally bring together the experience I had in Silicon Valley with my passion to do good in the world. And so at the lab we’re able to, from the funding side, pioneer flexible mechanisms that would better support innovation. Things like development innovation ventures or DIV that was modeled after venture capital where we had a tiered funding model where we give out small grants that were able to take bigger risks and try out things that we weren’t sure if they’re going to work, but based on the track record and based on evidence that something was getting traction, then we could increase our investment and double down on them, and so allowing a lot more opportunity for risk taking and flexibility. We also ran things like prizes and challenges that kind of set a high bar for the kind of solutions that we think are needed in the world to really make a difference in thought innovators who could come up with potential solutions. We looked at new ways to leverage technology, innovative partnerships, different ways to finance social innovation by bringing together the private sector and the public sector and all towards the idea of how could we really bend the curve of progress in trying to end extreme poverty, trying to tackle some of the toughest challenges around the world. And I think that this is important because funding is what creates the incentives for a lot of how the sector works. And so it’s a critical driver in opening up the space for innovation. And so when my time in government came to end, thinking about the work that we had done and wanting to build on that. And so I decided to pursue this idea of writing a book and had the opportunity to go out and talk to over 200 organizations who are doing this type of work. All around and across the US and around the world and are whether they’re small organizations or big ones, whether they’re for profit or nonprofit, whether they’re funders or implementers. And I’ve been really inspired by this building trend of organizations who are moving beyond the traditional model of how we deliver social impact and really incorporating innovation into part of the work that they do.


To hear the whole interview listen here: The sgENGAGE Podcast Episode 81: Lean Principles for Social Good


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