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Can nonprofits innovate like startups?

Max Farrell is the co-founder of WorkHound, a driver retention software focused on the trucking industry. Beyond that, Max facilitates innovation experiences with innovation consulting firm Create Reason, which instills a culture of intrapreneurship inside established companies.

BG innovation biz record

In the middle of a weekday afternoon recently, I looked at the outdoor garden at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden as a staff of 20-plus behind me was passionately coming up with more than 100 ideas about how to improve the guest experience at the Garden. 

Many of the staff could have been tending to the gardens, making donor calls, guiding tours, or any of the number of duties it takes to run the organization. Instead, the staff agreed to press pause for a day in order to work cross-functionally and identify future opportunities for the organization. We called the day an “Innovation Jam”.

As someone who cut my teeth working with emerging tech companies like Dwolla, then launched my own company called WorkHound, I have a blast when I can share actionable knowledge with amazing nonprofits in the community.

But I had one big question that needed to be answered: Can a nonprofit innovate like a startup?

The answer was revealed quickly on my day working with the Botanical Garden: absolutely.

In the one-day innovation jam, we broke out the employees cross-functionally, wrote down 100-plus ideas, filtered them down within groups, and then prioritized based on the day’s north star (goal): “improve the guest experience for members and visitors of the Botanical Garden."

The first thing the Botanical Garden did was engage its entire staff in this experience. Employees collaborated with others regardless of role or department. To truly have an innovative organization, bottom-up engagement has to be embraced and the Botanical Garden did just that.

To amplify this, the Botanical Garden invited members to participate in a “customer development” session, where groups of employees interviewed members to better understand their problems, their delights, and the stickiness around what keeps them coming back. This opened staff eyes to quickly validate their ideas and whether additional time was needed to develop an idea into an event, a product, or a service down the road.

Finally, we worked through how to experiment like companies such as Zappos and Google to try small things before spending significant efforts on something that doesn’t work. This was culminated with completing “The Lean Canvas”, which I often refer to as a business model in a box.

We ended the day mentally exhausted, but eager to execute on new opportunities.

With more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S.*, there are many organizations competing for precious grants, donations, and volunteer efforts. Some of the most innovative organizations, like the Botanical Garden, realize they can’t rely exclusively on others contributing money. They run parts of their organization like a business: They know who their customer is, they create a product or service, and they operate where donations are a bonus.

The Botanical Garden added innovation into their strategic vision recently and the ripples continue to roll, as the physical experiences there leave visitors awestruck. But on a day when the Botanical Garden closed its doors for staff development, it added innovative tactics to the many tools used to make the gardens thrive.

*based on data from foundationcenter.org


Let's keep the conversation going: 

Max startup

Email: max@createreason.com

Twitter: @MaxOnTheTrack

Web: CreateReason.com


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