From Startup to Success: Guiding Nonprofits with Six Core Principles of Improvement

Six core principles, drawn from STEM education, can help new nonprofits assemble a diverse team, raise funds successfully, and learn to use the gathered resources for strategic growth.

From Startup to Success: Guiding Nonprofits with Six Core Principles of Improvement
13 mins read

A framework to help your nonprofit grow and progress.

Sharing the Vision

Nonprofits are started for a variety of reasons. While countless startup guides exist—telling you to do the research, think through a business plan, network to find strong leadership, and start the formal registration process—little guidance can be found that tells you how to reach your vision when navigating the first few years of a nonprofit. In the early stages, the challenges at hand involve bringing together a group of individuals with different skills and networks and then leading that group to a common goal.

Our organization, the Lindsay’s Legacy Foundation (LLF), certainly ran up against a number of these challenges in the first few years after being established. Our mission is built on financially assisting patients, families, and researchers in finding hope on the journey to becoming cancer-free, including through access to necessary clinical trials and improvements to the hospital setting. Like many other organizations, we started with one major fundraising event (a road race), hoping to generate the funds to achieve our goal.

But the challenges associated with a successful event can consume a small foundation’s human resources without allowing for strategic growth as an organization. Specifically, we wanted to focus on improvement. How could we move forward from one small event per year? How could we grow to financially sustain our dual-pronged mission: supporting cancer research as well as directly aiding cancer patients undergoing long and costly hospital stays?

As an academic in the field of education, I turned to what I know best, spending countless hours digging into the research. I found many suggestions on what makes nonprofits successful (i.e., clear mission, strong practices, procedures, and policies, etc.) and how to avoid common pitfalls in nascent organizations. Yet I was surprised at the lack of a framework for improvement that I felt would allow us to progress. In the end, I chose to utilize an approach that I often use in education—the six core principles of improvement[1]–to help LLF map a course to get us to the next level.

In my day-job improving STEM education for all students, I had used these principles to implement new, more equitable programs and broaden participation in STEM education. If these six principles could help grow our STEM programs, it stood to reason that they might just be able to be implemented in expanding our foundation as well. The following lays out the six principles as well as indicates how LLF applied them to improve as an organization.

1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered.

To do this, we started with the question: What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve? Focusing on the problem along with the user supports leadership discussions in ways that extend beyond cyclical iterations of we need money, what should we do, how do we pull this off, and how do we grow this? Instead, this repositioning focuses on the problem at hand, helping us orient ourselves to address the problem.

In our case, we had to become knowledgeable about the needs of cancer patients. We spent countless hours in the hospital and spoke with nurse-leaders, finding that the more we understood their individual circumstances, the better service we were able to provide. If the patient’s hospital room had everything needed for basic healthcare but none of the comforts of home, for example, this did not help to improve the immediate surroundings of those experiencing extended stays in the hospital.

In your own implementation of this principle, think about the specific ways you are going to go about achieving your mission. In what ways can you better orient your organization towards the community you serve? Ask your clients what changes they would benefit most from and then work to implement those changes.

2. Address variation in performance.

This principle addresses the question of context. It looks not only at what is working but also for whom and under what conditions success occurs.

After a couple years of successful road race events, we were excited about our ability to pull off a great event but cognizant of our limited ability to do more. We had board members with many skills but little consistency in terms of time they could dedicate to improving the organization. To improve, we needed to grow our network of donors and expand beyond this single event to help LLF move into direct in-room patient support. As Learning to Improve suggests, we had to “get better at getting better.” We decided to bring on a Director of Operations to streamline communications and keep our board on track. This individual brought a wealth of knowledge (and a free version of Salesforce) and turned our variation in performance into a benefit, where we could strategically build on what was working, for whom, and how to create the conditions for their success.

For your organization, variation in performance might look like changes in yearly funds or the amount of volunteers. We’ve all lived through a pandemic and are now uncomfortably versed in how situations can change suddenly and drastically. Think through what variations have and might yet occur within your organization and come up with solutions that address such inevitabilities.

3. See the system that produces the current outcomes.

A desire to improve is limited when you do not fully understand how the energy put into the system leads to the outcomes you are receiving.

We would not improve our outcomes without a focus on changing LLF’s system itself. For example, analyzing our system allowed us to see that our network of donors would remain limited to those that fund and participate in road races, ultimately limiting growth. If we were looking to expand our network of donors, we needed to start by expanding the system through which we received funding itself.

To these ends, we brought on a Director of Happiness, who created new year-round events to reach people not necessarily interested in a road race: trips to professional baseball and football games, flower and wreath arranging, guided bird walks, and even virtual cooking classes that were held during early shutdowns for the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a year, we have the capital necessary to move into directly supporting the atmosphere of rooms for cancer patients but only because we created something entirely new—adjacent to but still different from the system that had been working thus far.

For your organization, think through what structures you have in place. Consider your inputs: where are you investing human and organizational resources? How are these inputs leading to the outcomes you are currently seeing? Organizations often continue to add additional work (i.e., events, board members, volunteers, etc.) in the hopes of improving outcomes. Rather than getting caught up in always trying to add on work, take time to consider how the energy your nonprofit already expends is or is not leading to the outcomes you are looking for.

4. We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.

In any effort, data should be a major driver for improvement. Nonprofits are complex structures and often require those in leadership roles to make crucial decisions related to improving organizational outcomes. Yet many of these decisions fall on qualitative measures—like people seemed to really like it or I bet people would be excited to fund that—rather than relying on quantitative measures of success (and failure).

The inclusion of Salesforce for Nonprofits allowed us to measure what was working for us and helped us to become more efficient—working smarter and not harder. We were able to quickly measure the success of individual events through a multi-tiered approach: (a) costs vs. funds generated, (b) percentage of new donors, (c) new organizational partnerships, and (d) future opportunities to scale.

Consider what quantitative data you need to understand. What could you measure to quantify implemented changes? More specifically, make sure to include data points on how to measure how effective these changes have been in furthering your organization’s mission.

If your leadership is unsure about how to go about quantifying your work, conferences are a great option to learn about how others are approaching this. For example, we attended the RunSignup Roadshow in Boston to learn about the newest software updates that we now use to improve our road race.

4. Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry.

The science of improvement moves beyond simple intention. Instead, it calls for formal methods of engaging in improvement through learning-by-doing. While there are many formal approaches, a commonly used cycle to organize this work is the Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA). This approach is organized around three questions (see figure) that guide improvement with an empirical orientation.

These six principles come from Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better.

The PDSA cycle emphasizes learning-by-doing and supports failure, not with a deficit frame but as an opportunity to learn quickly. Implementing the PDSA cycle allowed us to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly.

For example, we quickly realized that meeting the needs of individual patients requires our organization to learn more while maintaining HIPPA-compliance, so we decided to provide integrative art therapy during the holiday season. This first step helped us determine how best to provide in-room experiences that meet the needs of patients.

In your own nonprofit, think where the PDSA model might benefit you. Perhaps there are certain programs you’re running that feel stuck in the mud. How might you be able to implement this success-through-failure framework? What can you learn by doing?

5. Accelerate improvements through networked communities.

Nonprofit leaders, especially those new to this work, are limited by their own skills and knowledge. They also do not necessarily have extra time to dedicate to either, although both are critical to the improvement of their organization. While this can be frustrating, it also means that nonprofit leaders must embrace crowd-sourced wisdom. That is, we must recognize that networked communities allow for us to accomplish much more than we would be able to do alone. Often the diverse perspectives and skills that other community members bring are novel ideas that your leadership may never have come up with.

In fact, nonprofit boards themselves are often a wealth of expertise and incredible networks to harness that can serve to break nonprofits out of traditional approaches to improvement. While we were limited in our initial thinking of having a single road race aimed at meeting our fundraising goals, we decided to listen to our networks: they shared that while they wanted to support our mission, they were looking for different types of events, not just road races. Implementing the suggestions of our networks has drastically improved our reach beyond those who participate in charity walks and runs.

In your own community, consider the skills of your people. How might you tap into these in pursuit of your mission? How can you crowdsource knowledge for the betterment of the people you serve?

It Takes a Colony

Our foundation’s logo is a bee, symbolizing the power of collective action. A single bee can visit 5,000 flowers in a day, but a beehive can pollinate 500 million flowers a year. We took this to mean that individually, we can do a lot, but collectively we can change the world. We chose this symbol because of all that we are capable of together.

But what do bees have to do with improvement? Bees live in complex societies that are effective because of their division of labor—while some are highly specialized in their tasks, there is shared leadership and community control over the success of the hive. Think about it this way: within a nonprofit, improvement cannot be the sole responsibility of executive leadership. Rather, improvement must be a united goal that all within the organization work towards. Together, we can!

About the Author

Lindsay’s Legacy Foundation

Dr. TJ McKenna is President and Chairman of the Board of Lindsay’s Legacy Foundation as well as a faculty member in Science Education at Boston University. He has more than 20 years of experience as a scientist, nonprofit leader, formal and informal educator, science communicator, and educational researcher. Dr. McKenna also is the founder and creator of an educative website with 3.5 million views designed to support teachers in learning more about phenomena-based instruction.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

2 thoughts on “From Startup to Success: Guiding Nonprofits with Six Core Principles of Improvement

  1. Our problem statement speaks directly to and shines a light on the work we do but we have recognized that scaling one-size-fits-all solutions to wicked human scaled issues is the great lie of the 1990’s . I love the hive metaphor and superorganism’s understanding that we each have a job to do but none of us can do everything. In our work with youth this means responding to disclosures, hints, questions with caring micro-interventions and crafting a personal plan and response for the proximate issues and circumstances. In therapeutic relationships, best practices are those actions that are needed in the moment.
    Thanks for the provocation.


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