Want to change the world, but have limited time and money at your disposal? Join the club.
You can’t drive change if you pour your heart and soul into an inefficient engine. You need to get lean.
Nonprofits and social movements need to learn from the lean methodology, or risk wasting resources and throwing away the most precious commodity, attention. The principle of lean methodology is to produce maximum value with the minimum amount of wasted resources, and nonprofits are often guilty of failing this test.
You’re not always building something for your constituents. Whales don’t use web apps.
Nonprofits have a vision of a better world, and a theory of how to remake this world into the one they envision. For a nonprofit, the goal is change, and waste is any resource spent that doesn’t help achieve that change.
Waste can cost you money or human resources, but when your goal is change, waste can also squander attention. If your organization is getting attention and failing to use that to drive change, you are wasting attention.
In an era of nonprofit proliferation, it is even more important that nonprofits learn to be lean. Attention is a finite resource. If your organization or movement is getting attention, some other organization is not. If two nonprofits are competing for attention around a specific issue, the problem becomes even more pronounced. If you capture attention but don’t turn it into change, you are not only wasting the attention, but you are preventing another organization from catalyzing that attention into change.
Don’t just demand attention. Create change.
The Origins of Lean
The lean methodology began in the manufacturing industry. The basic principle is to produce an increment of value with as little waste as possible. In manufacturing, an increment of value is a high-quality physical good. Waste takes many forms – including defects in production, excess inventory, unnecessary processing, and rework.
The lean startup movement, pioneered by Eric Ries, applies these principles to the startup community. In a lean startup, value takes a different form. To paraphrase Steve Blank, a startup is an organization searching for a business model. Since the purpose of the organization is to discover something, not to create a product, the increment of value is validated learning. Startups create value by testing assumptions and proving or disproving hypotheses. After the business model and growth model are validated, the business ceases to be a startup, and can focus on scaling.[For a good introduction, checkout Ries’s book, The Lean Startup]
Lean for Nonprofits
Nonprofits and social movements are another animal. They still need to reduce waste – but value lies neither in validating hypotheses (unless the nonprofit also happens to be a startup, a topic for another post) nor in producing physical goods. You’re not always building something for your constituents. Whales don’t use web apps.
For a lean startups, it’s about learning. For a lean nonprofit, it’s about impact. Lean nonprofits create increments of value by enacting, provoking, or inspiring change with as little waste as possible.
It’s time for nonprofits to be more lean.
Less waste, more change.