Lack of Demand for Services Vexes Nonprofit Leaders Seeking to Solve Social Issues

11/17/2016 |


New Bridgespan Group research highlights "needs-equals-demand" fallacy and the need to be proactive in "Selling" social change
BOSTON, MA—November 17, 2016—Seventy percent of nonprofit leaders participating in a survey conducted by The Bridgespan Group reported shortfalls in program participation and half said matters have gotten worse over the past five years. According to Taz Hussein, a Bridgespan partner who led the study, “Our research points to the need for U.S. and international nonprofits to recognize that innovative social programs don’t sell themselves. Getting a new idea adopted, even when it has proven effective, is often very difficult.” (Click here to access the full article in Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

Hussein’s co-author Matt Plummer said, “Most nonprofits and funders optimistically operate on the assumption that if they “build it” beneficiaries will come—but often demand falls short of expectations.” Instead, the authors suggest that nonprofits begin to rethink three key steps in creating and implementing solutions suggesting that they:
  • Recognize the limits of designing primarily for effectiveness and design for “spreadability;”
  • Go beyond identifying a broad group of potential beneficiaries and focus first on a subgroup most likely to participate; and,
  • Develop and resource a sales and marketing capability from the outset, right alongside budgeting for program delivery.
“Insights about the role of program design, beneficiary segmentation and sales and marketing come from decades of research and practical application of “diffusion of innovation” theory. A wide range of private companies draw on this work to shape their strategies and it turns out that such strategies can also help the social sector,” said Hussein.

As an example, Hussein points to Omada Health, a for-profit entity with a social mission to spread a nationally recognized diabetes prevention program (DPP). Omada grew from serving 4,000 in its first full year in the market to more than 100,000 this year, five times the number enrolled by all other DPP providers in 2015. Hussein attributes Omada’s success to smart design decisions made early on. The program, unlike others, is online rather than classroom-based; it markets its DPP as short and intense (16 weeks) and only after an individual has nearly completed the program does it offer an additional six-eight-month maintenance program. Moreover, Omada allows prospective participants to test its program in advance via free online demos. They rely on early adopters to share information with others, and they have a 55 person sales force.

“Investing in a salesforce, while typical in the private sector is unfamiliar in the nonprofit sector at best, and downright taboo at worst,” said Plummer.” However, according to Bridgespan’s research, there is evidence that a robust salesforce has made the difference for nonprofits as well. It cites the development and adoption of a solution called oral rehydration, a remedy for cholera-induced diarrhea that, while effective, went largely unused for years until BRAC, a Bangladesh NGO, in conjunction with the government, deployed thousands of workers to teach villagers about how and why to use the solution. A few short years after they did so in the 1980s, oral rehydration therapy became the new norm for treating cholera.

Finally, the Bridgespan report offers a list of resources for nonprofits struggling with the demand issue that can offer assistance in addressing salesforce development issues and deeper understanding of beneficiaries and the barriers that keep them from taking action.

About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group ( is a nonprofit advisor and resource for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists. We collaborate with social sector leaders to help scale impact, build leadership, advance philanthropic effectiveness and accelerate learning. We work on issues related to society’s most important challenges and to break cycles of poverty. Our services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.

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