3 Steps to Future-Proofing Your Nonprofit

Developing New Services Beyond the Crisis

Even as the government debates how much longer life and business need to stay restricted, there is no doubt that life will never fully go back to pre-pandemic norms. From the way that businesses function to the way that schools are run, to the way we socialize, we will likely see a lasting impact on many aspects of our lives.

At the same time between the economic downturn, restrictions on ability to deliver services, and increased competition for attention online, it’s likely that many nonprofits will have to completely shutter or at least consolidate their operations. If that happens, it could leave millions of people without the services they rely on.

The nonprofits most likely to survive through this change are the ones who can evolve to keep serving their communities in the ways they’ll need going forward.

While some of your programs may be easy to transition into their digital equivalents, others may not fare as well. But the people served by those programs still need your help. The question is, how can you determine what that help should be and then deliver most effectively?

The reality is that every business, for-profit or nonprofit, is now a tech or tech-enabled business.

Step 1: Assess your strengths and resources

Your mission is more than the sum of your programs, and your staff is more than the sum of their current roles. You have a vision for a better world and a mandate to help people create that world.

Your staff has likely already demonstrated their ability to not only adapt what they’ve done in the past but also to bring additional skills and knowledge to bear. Many have even quickly learned skills to get the (new) job done under the circumstances.

Start by asking them what other skills, interests and hobbies they might be able to bring to the job.

These skills might be in areas like:

  • Technology
  • Communications
  • Operations
  • Logistics
  • Languages
  • Arts and crafts
  • Entertainment

Don’t forget to also ask your volunteers, who often have skills and experience outside those of your staff.

Step 2: Ask Them What They Need

Just as life has changed, needs have changed. How do you truly know what your community needs at this time? What will they likely need in the coming weeks and months?

Rather than going on instinct or anecdotal evidence, ask them.

  1. Put a form on your website. It could be as simple as a Google Form or Typeform, or whatever form functionality your website supports. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to work.
  2. Ask them through social media, email, etc. You’ve likely been letting your community know that you’re here for them through all this. Let them know that you understand their needs have changed, too. Then ask them how you can help.
  3. If you have phone numbers, call them. The online space has gotten increasingly flooded with all manner of offers and requests. Calling to check in on your community is a great way to make evident that you care about them and to ask them what they are currently struggling with.

In all cases, be sure to ask open-ended questions where people can share ideas or requests you may not have thought of and put it in their own words. And ask if you can follow up with them for more information.

Be careful to keep your mission in mind as you consider the ideas. While expanding your mission might make sense at this time, be sure that your support base will see it as an organic expansion, not a turn into an entirely new direction which might alienate them. Perhaps some ideas are best passed along to other organizations whose missions and/or capacities are more in line with the idea.

Once you’ve decided on which ideas might make the most sense for your organization and your beneficiaries, cross-reference them with your resources. Consider asking your board for suggestions or connections that can be helpful. The more involved they feel, the more they’ll be committed to supporting any new endeavor.

Step 3: Build, Measure, Learn

Now is not the time to invest in researching, developing and training on the best tech, processes or even people for the job. Your goal now is to respond to those needs and start helping the people who need it.

You may have heard of the term “lean startup” and the corresponding methodology. While initially applied to Silicon Valley startups, author Eric Ries dedicated sections of his book to how nonprofits can implement the practices, too.

One of the core principles is this: Don’t make your community wait as you develop a perfect solution. The reality is that you don’t know enough about their true needs or the best way to serve them yet.

Eric Reis broke down the development cycle into three steps:

  • Build an MVP (Minimal Viable Product)

    Listening to feedback gives you a solid hypothesis of what your community needs.

    Now, it’s time to develop your Minimal Viable Product—the easiest and quickest way you can start serving the needs people have expressed to you.

    There is a popular mantra in the startup world, originally said by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

    This holds equally true for nonprofit programs. If there is a takeaway from the effective responses to COVID-19, it’s that audiences care much less about polish than they do about authenticity and responsiveness.

    Start with the resources you already have and the easiest ways to put the ideas into action. Then put it out to your communities as quickly as you can.

  • Measure the Results

    How do you know if the new program is working? What are the measurements you can take to see if people are responding and it’s the right solution for the problem you’re trying to address?

    Test the demand and test your ability to fulfill it before making any major investments. You may be surprised at the response you receive.

    Quantitative metrics to consider

    There are many different numbers you can track, including:

    • Number of sign-ups for the program
    • Number of people served
    • Number of repeat customers

    Qualitative metrics to consider

    Ask the participants what they think as early and frequently as makes sense for your program.

    • How helpful has it been to them?
    • Would they recommend this program to others in a similar situation?
    • What would make it more helpful?
    • Can you follow up with them for more info?

    This is also a good time to ask for testimonials. If there are positive signs, be sure to tout these to current and potential donors to help you grow the program.

  • Learn from Feedback

    Examine the results you’ve measured.

    Is there significant demand for what you’re offering? Is it providing enough value to enough people? If yes, what’s the next logical iteration of the program and its delivery? If not, perhaps there’s another program that can offer more.

    What are the suggestions and requests that people are making? Which ones can you implement easily to move the project forward?

    Again, it’s not about making the best possible solution, it’s about making the best next version to serve more people, better.

  • Repeat

    This process is a theoretically endless cycle of responsive improvement. Once you’ve learned what you can from your initial (and each subsequent) version of the program, implement what you’ve learned into the next “build” and start the cycle again.

Could you use some help implementing these strategies to future-proof your org? Let’s talk.