The standard nonprofit process of building a digital strategy — or a standalone campaign — can often be a shot in the dark. Organizations spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on a theory that users will click or donate or share or engage, and success is by no means guaranteed. To borrow a phrase, the accepted model is “build it and they’ll come.”
We suggest that a better model, following lean thinking principles, is to prototype and test relentlessly. Organizations will have more success with an iterative approach, deploying new components as we validate that they will yield the results we’re after.
The roots of lean thinking are decades old, but the simple philosophy is as applicable today as ever. Lean manufacturing, first pioneered by Toyota manufacturing in the mid-20th century, aims to focus a nimble supply chain around real (rather than estimated) customer demand.
Eric Ries adapted this philosophy to entrepreneurship in his 2011 book, The Lean Startup. His methodology — summed up in three words: Build, Measure, Learn — has the potential to revolutionize the way nonprofits engage online.
Ries argues that entrepreneurs (which includes all of us) shouldn’t invest too much precious time and money building a product based on an assumption about a market. The initial goals of a startup -- or a campaign -- shouldn’t be revenue or customers.They should be what Ries calls validated learnings -- insight into the keys to success, proven through testing.
Nonprofit organizations don’t always love to admit it, but we’re selling products, too. Ries defines a product as “anything a customer experiences from their interaction with a company.” By that definition, each advocacy campaign you launch, each membership package you sell, and each social service you offer is a product. And anyone who seeks innovation with those products, even in large organizations, is an entrepreneur.
When you decide to launch a new digital campaign, or add a feature to your website or app, we suggest that you approach it with the framework of the lean startup.
Here are the steps to a successful lean campaign:
● Define one hypothesis you have about the needs of your constituency, the action(s) that will bring about social change, or the way your constituents will engage with your organization.
● Define some metrics, or Key Performance Indicators, that will prove your assumption to be true or false (i.e. X number of people will sign up to for a new leadership program we are launching in the Fall).
● Design and deploy a “minimum viable product” — the simplest version of your program, campaign, or website — that will allow you to test your assumption.
● Monitor the performance of this product over time, keeping track of key events that either validate or disprove your initial assumption.
If you proved your assumptions as true, celebrate with your team and then move the campaign to a wider audience (or move on to testing another hypothesis). But if the results fail to validate your hypothesis, you can either:
● Take your learnings from this test and build off of those; or
● Go back to the drawing board and develop a new idea.
One way you can test a campaign or product before investing heavily is to test landing pages and calls to action using tools like Optimizely (to A/B test page features) or Unbounce (to test a variety of landing pages). Creating landing pages for your “products” that ask people to sign up to learn more is a great way to gauge whether there’s interest in them.
We’re not the first to notice the opportunity to apply lean principles to nonprofit strategy. Some smart nonprofits and social enterprises are already using pieces of lean methodology in their strategies. President Obama’s re-election campaign broke new ground in digital campaigning in part because of a commitment to testing and measurement.
At the core of our argument is a plea for nonprofits to move away from what Ries calls “vanity metrics” (for nonprofits, this might be list size or Facebook likes). Nonprofits and cause-focused organizations should think hard about validated learnings and actionable metrics. How do we know if our campaigns and efforts are working if we aren’t measuring them thoughtfully. Sure, dollars raised is always good. But are we making the policy change we sought? Are we changing minds? Are we providing more effective services to our constituents?
Too many nonprofits, like many businesses, still invest time and money in products (such as campaigns or microsites) before they’ve articulated a testable hypothesis and actionable metrics. There’s another way. The iterative process behind lean thinking could mean a revolution in the way we organize and mobilize constituents online. To paraphrase Eric Ries, nonprofits need to build quickly, measure wisely, and learn, learn, learn.
Useful articles are resources:
● This Linkedin group focuses on lean thinking for nonprofits
● Jeff Gothelf has written extensively about lean user experience.
● Strategist and organizer Jon Stahl wrote this smart post about lean thinking for nonprofits