What can world-changers learn from software developers?

This is the second of a three-part series in which I’ll share some lessons drawn from the world of software development that can be applied to the social good sector. Today’s post is about using data to make better decisions. Read the first part about recognizing obstacles to action for what they are here

One of the defining features of Scrum (the software development methodology we use here at Idealist) is the regular opportunity for “retrospectives.” Once a week the team gathers to talk about what went well during the previous week, and what we want to change for the next week.

The key here is the short cycles—it allows us to experiment with semi-crazy ideas, because we’re only committing to them for a week. If they don’t work, we throw ‘em out the next week. It’s very low risk.

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Photo via Nomad_Soul on Shutterstock.

An obvious benefit of this “inspect and adapt” habit is that it allows us to continuously improve our processes. A less obvious benefit is that it creates a culture of empiricism. Whenever we can, we bring real data to the retrospective.

We might start off with an instinct or a hypothesis like, “I wonder if we’d get more done if we aimed higher next week” (which is a valid question, not a foregone conclusion).

We can then test that hypothesis immediately and a week later gather to look at the results. We aimed higher—did we or didn’t we get more done?

Inspect, adapt, change the world

Nonprofits and other worldchangers use inspect and adapt processes as well, of course. The staff at Single Stop USA, for example, are working to end poverty. They keep students in school by helping them and their families navigate the world of public benefits, providing them with access to tax preparation support in addition to legal and financial counseling.

Since their founding in 2001, Single Stop has continued to work towards that goal with laser-like focus, but understands that their approach must be nimble enough to evolve based on empirical data.

Nate Falkner is the Vice President of Strategy and says that Single Stop USA makes better use of data than any organization he’s worked with. For example, they’ve used data to identify potential partners to help distribute their programs.

Early on, they looked at studies that showed that programs that gave community college students at risk of dropping out just two to three hundred dollars would often mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

A lightbulb went off, and the Single Stop team realized community colleges were ideal partners. Single Stop’s programs could serve as a dropout prevention strategy for the colleges (on average, Single Stop clients receive benefits and services worth over $1,000), while the colleges could provide Single Stop with access to a large number of potential clients and an infrastructure through which to expand.

Similarly, after gathering data that showed the words “tax preparation support” carries less stigma than “government benefits” (think politically charged terms like “food stamps” and “welfare”), Single Stop refined its messaging to potential clients. They focused their outreach message on the tax preparation parts of their program, drawing in clients who later became interested in their other resources.

Let out your inner data nerd

When it comes to developing an “inspect and adapt” process, we recommend keeping the following in mind:

1. Schedule time for reflecting on process, and treat it as sacred.
It can be tempting to skip the retrospective when other things seem more pressing, but we’ve found that treating it as sacred has kept us sharp.

2. Minimize the risks associated with innovating on process.
We limit our experiments to one week, which allows us to try out some pretty dramatic ideas. You’ll often hear someone say, “It’s only for a week, guys” during our retrospective sessions. This reduces anxiety for people who tend to be averse to big changes.

3. Adapt the process; don’t move the goalposts.
As Nate says, “Our mission is ending poverty, and that doesn’t change. We’re being smart and nimble about how we approach that discussion and how we approach stakeholders on their terms.”

How have you used “inspect and adapt” techniques to innovate on your internal processes?

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Try This! Team up with other literary organizations to pack a real punch

The idea

What do you do when you have an awesome literary nonprofit organization that happens to have a very similar mission to other groups your area?

Well, instead of competing for resources by throwing down in a bookish rumble for supporters and donors, some of the leading literary organizations and independent presses of the Twin Cities decided to join forces. The love child of their cooperation is LitPunch, an outreach initiative with a shared community-building goal.

Originally designed to draw in a new audience, LitPunch is a series of social networking events hosted by the editors, book reviewers, directors, and volunteer coordinators of the five participating literary organizations. Chris Jones, Marketing Director at The Loft Literary Center, explains that sharing responsibilities between the organizations has worked well for LitPunch because of good communication and mutual respect between the partnering groups. “We have a great working relationship because we’re all open and flexible,” he says.

punch cardEver-evolving, LitPunch offers community members a chance to chat with the minds behind some of the most prominent literary organizations and presses in the country. Back when LitPunch got its start in 2011, the gem of the program was an actual punch card that participants could get stamped at “punch worthy” readings and lit events around the cities. After filling a card by attending 12 events (a “knock-out”), the card could be used as a $15 gift certificate at a participating indie bookstore.

While this was a fun idea at first, about a year into the program, participants started complaining about losing or forgetting to bring their punch cards and the program started to lose steam. Rather than giving up on the idea, the organizers decided to tweak their approach and transformed the program into a series of social networking events (from punch cards to punch bowls, some would say).

Why you might like to try this

  • Distributes your marketing efforts. With literary events like readings, there is sometimes a burnout effect that comes from inviting the same core group of followers again and again. Pooling your lists and inviting a bigger number of folks to begin with can help avoid this. Teaming up also lends a razzle dazzle effect to events and makes them really special—people love knowing that this is the literary event to go to.
  • Lightens logistical responsibilities. Nonprofits and small presses are usually strapped for staff time and have a lot to do besides organizing community events. By sharing the responsibilities of who does what, you can lessen the burden on all of the groups.
  • Increases fans and supporters. One of the big questions the members of LitPunch had in the beginning was if they were already sharing the same core group of supporters. They each sent out a survey to try and figure this out, and what they found was encouraging. “Most people were at least aware of the other organizations, but they definitely became more aware after we teamed up. It seems like most felt connected to one or two of the organizations, but few were circled into all five very strongly,” Chris says. He considers this one of the biggest successes of their coalition—that LitPunch really has exposed people in the community to new opportunities.

How you can replicate it

Creating new coalitions can be a challenge, but Chris has some advice for nonprofits looking to team up, whether for a literary endeavor like LitPunch or otherwise.

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Guests mingling at January’s LitPunch mixer.

1.Pick your collaborators wisely.
There comes to a certain point where without a central leader, trading off on responsibilities just isn’t efficient anymore. For the folks at LitPunch, five organizations is just right: “Any more and I think it would become a little unwieldy.” The most important trick to forming a strong coalition is to make sure that your missions are really on point. You want to be able to focus your efforts in the same direction when it comes to the consistency and style of your events, including collaborative efforts in grant proposals and reports, and reaching out to the right potential audience members.

2.Stay flexible.
Community projects need to be focused enough to have a clear goal that fits into what your organization does, but—especially when you’re working with other organizations—coalitions need to be able to change and grow with time. As Chris says, “If you’re too rigid, it’s just not going to work.” LitPunch has changed dramatically since its start in 2011, and its constant evolution has been a big part of its longevity.

3. Ask for feedback.
As LitPunch has grown up, the participating organizations have been very committed to seeking out and responding to feedback from their attendees. When people reported they were losing their punch cards too often to make it worthwhile, LitPunch did away with the cards. When people said they wanted to meet with more editors and talk books with the best of ‘em, LitPunch delivered. Give people what they want, and your program will be successful.

4. Make it fun.
The spirit of LitPunch comes from that nostalgic drive for racking up points and winning awesome prizes that many folks have carried with them since childhood. This fun energy has electrified all of the events and marketing efforts of LitPunch, even after the end of “knock-outs.” At the next LitPunch mixer in June, for example, attendees will be able to win prizes from their favorite presses and bookstores by playing literary signature bingo which rewards them for mingling with the editors and organizers of the participating LitPunch groups.

This consistent effort of LitPunch to give “normal” readings and literary events extra flare has certainly attracted a great deal of attention for the program and for the participating organizations.

“The turnout was overwhelming,” Chris says about the 2013 LitPunch kick-off this past January. “It was so cool to see a bar packed with people who were all there because they love books as much as we do.”

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Interested in forming a similar coalition? Have questions about the upcoming LitPunch mixer in the Twin Cities on June 19? Contact Chris Jones at cjones@loft.org.

Rebecca Olson

 

Rebecca Olson is a writer and arts advocate living in Portland, Oregon.

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Idealist 101: Learn the secrets of our site

Well okay, they’re not really secrets—we’re pretty transparent here. But our new video series, Idealist 101, will teach you some quick and easy ways to make the most of your experience on our site.

The first installment focuses on making your organization’s page the best it can be. Whether you’re currently hiring staff, looking for volunteers or interns, or want to connect with the best people and orgs, your organization’s page is how you represent yourself to the Idealist community. So make it shine! Let Matt and Kim from our Community Engagement Team show you how.

It’s also no secret that you make Idealist.

Aside from our blogs and info centers, all the org pages, personal profiles, and opportunity listings are generated by our community. So not only does it benefit you to make your contributions as fabulous as possible, it benefits the whole site and everyone who uses it. Why wait another minute?!

  • If you administer an organization’s page, watch the video and click here to update your page and make it pop.
  • If you use the site as an individual, share the video with your favorite orgs to help them make the most of Idealist.
  • Check out more tips and stay tuned for the next 101 video!

How have you made your organization’s page the best it can be? Share your secrets with our community.

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