What Nonprofits can Learn from Tech

 In Collaboration, Nonprofit, Project Management

Lean. Sprint. Agile. Scrum. On-demand. APIs. Design thinking. UX/UI.

In a world where startups are becoming the norm, these terms get thrown around a lot. But they’re just for startups, are they not?

Actually, there are some things that your nonprofit organization could borrow from the tech world, and operate–and grow!–much more efficiently. In this post, we’ll learn more about three ways to borrow best practices and ways of thinking from tech startups that could greatly enhance the way your organization works.


User experience, even in nonprofits, is EVERYTHING.

Tech companies talk a lot about “UX/UI,” which stands for “user experience/user interface.” According to Usability.gov, User Experience “focuses on having a deep understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their abilities, and also their limitations,” while User Interface is the way your product or service looks. When your organization seeks to make a difference in the lives of your target market, focusing on the individual people–users—will surely prove beneficial.

How do you interact with your constituents? Is it through events? An email newsletter? Fundraising requests? A blog? Social media? You probably use at least a few of these to communicate with your audience. You just might be able to enhance your constituent satisfaction by diving deeper into the reactions and actions evoked by the usage of your product or service.

At the very core, people turn to your organization because they seek value in what you provide. Often, we see organizations that pick a cause they are passionate about, and they focus solely on that cause in a crusade-like manner. However, the people who are seeking services, benefits, or information about that cause are emotional beings, and the more you understand their motivations, their experiences, their goals, and their desires, the better you will be able to serve them.

Peter Morville, a noted user experience designer, created the User Experience Honeycomb to remind us of the facets of a meaningful experience for our users. A valuable exercise is to review the next piece of information you share with your audience and see if it is:

User experience honeycomb by Peter Morville

  • Useful: The content you share should be original and meet an actual need
  • Usable: The delivery method must be easy to use
  • Desirable: Design matters! The images and branding you use should evoke emotion and appreciation
  • Findable: The content needs to be navigable and locatable onsite and offsite
  • Accessible: The content needs to be accessible to people of different levels of ability
  • Credible: Your constituents must trust and believe what you tell them



Agile methodologies can make nonprofits more adaptable

In the tech world, Agile was created as a type of project management that divides tasks into short phases of work, allowing the team to quickly reassess and adapt their plans as-needed. The focus is on delivering products in phases, collaborating as a team, planning continually (instead of just the “Five Year Strategic Plan”), and learning continually. You can read the original Agile Manifesto here. We have re-thought these principles within the context of nonprofit management, and rewritten them here.


What we most like about Agile is that it isn’t just a tool or a thing, rather, Agile is a mindsetthat will completely change the way you and your teams think about projects and the work involved. We’ve seen many organizations that pride themselves in their strategic plans, in their annual planning retreats, or in their well-written mission statement.

All of these things may be useful in the overall purpose of your organization, yet with the fast-paced changes that are happening in the way people find, adapt to, and create information, our organizations need to be more nimble—agile—than ever. And if your organization depends on donations from your constituents, it’s vital that you be able to quickly adapt to their needs and desires so that the value that you provide continues to resonate with their hearts and minds.


While there are several frameworks (methods) that can be leveraged from Agile, they all center around a simple cycle: Planning, execution, and delivery. A good place to start is with a large project, like a new initiative or event that your organization is working on. Rebrandings, signature events, major publications, and more can benefit from Agile iteration cycles. Your team can divide that project into smaller chunks, or iterations, where at the end of each iteration, something of value is produced. This is a great way to save time and money usually spent creating full-blown campaigns that may or may not resonate with your audience. You can do a “mini-launch” that would give your audience a taste of what is to come, allowing you to get feedback and tweak your next iteration quickly.

By reiterating throughout the development process, you can vastly improve the quality and value of the initiatives you launch, because you’ll know exactly what the right “product” is for your target audience. You’ll be able to manage cost control by investing in only what you need, instead of working from a fixed budget. Your team will also find a new sense of transparency in the process, increasing teamwork and collaboration in your organization and more streamlined processes.


Design Thinking Leads to a Competitive Advantage

In a world where it is easier than ever to ask for donations (thanks, Kickstarter), your organization needs to create as much value—and communicate that value—as efficiently as possible. Design thinking ideology states that “a hands-on, user-centric approach to problem solving can lead to innovation, and innovation can lead to differentiation and a competitive advantage.” (Nielsen Norman Group)
The Nielsen Norman Group created this graphic to illustrate the six phases of the design thinking cycle: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and implement. Similar in many ways to Agile methodologies, design thinking allows us to focus on actually understanding the problems we are solving, before we ever create a solution. Your organization’s mission provides a starting place for the problem definition, and by seeking to understand your audience through research and interviews (understanding what they do, how they think, and what they feel), you can validate the exact needs so that whatever it is that you create, you know it will resonate with and solve a specific problem.

Only with a clear problem definition can you truly begin to ideate for creative ways of solving that problem. Once you have a few solid, impactful, valuable ideas, you can create “prototypes” of those ideas that you can then test with your constituents. It’s important to keep in mind that a prototype can exist in many forms, but that perfection isn’t the goal. Design thinking allows us to have the freedom of never reaching perfection so that you can constantly implement feedback from your users—much like iterations in Agile. The beauty is that one solution leads us to another problem, which leads us to another solution, and so on and so forth in a continuous cycle of ideas and creativity.

By centering all of your efforts on the end user or beneficiary of your product or services, it will seem like you are “reading the minds” of those very users. That will lead to continued engagement with and support of your organization. Also, the collaborative nature of design thinking will establish a shared language and gain buy-in from your team.

Successful implementation of design thinking will allow your organization to consistently create innovative ways of solving your audience’s problems, even as those problems evolve or change.

It’s all about the User.

As your organization evolves, hopefully you’ll find value in each of these methodologies. The one thing that will never change, however, is that the user is king. The common thread you’ll see in all three of these is the heavy focus on the user. After all, without them, your organization would not exist.

What new ways of working have you tried in your organization already? Did it work? How did your team feel about the process? What did you create as a result?

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