June 10, 2020

Nonprofit Innovation for a Post-Crisis Future

Here are four principles, gleaned from nonprofits, for continuously generating novel solutions to challenges that are confronting communities in crisis.

By: Nithin Iyengar, Reilly Kiernan

Nonprofits are fighting for their survival amid ongoing crises. Communities of color continue to cry out in pain as long-standing inequities rooted in dehumanization and systemic racism have worsened. And, as the first wave of COVID-19 gathered force, it exacted a disproportionate toll—from higher fatality rates to wider learning losses to deeper economic instability—on vulnerable populations. In this time of greatest need, we’ve heard from many leaders who are exhausted from deploying stop-gap measures: slashing budgets, shifting services online, and doing whatever else it takes to help their communities and protect their organizations’ futures. And the view ahead remains challenging: there is a world of uncertainty which they’ll need to adapt to—and a world of increased need for which their missions are ever more relevant.

In this crisis, the creativity and resourcefulness of the social sector has been astounding. Organizations rapidly moved beyond what they’ve always done and explored new ways of working. They’ve responded to the crisis and pursued rapid innovation—a break from practice, large or small, that solves a problem and leads to significant social impact—to create novel solutions in solidarity for and support of marginalized communities.

Nonprofits—and especially those most proximate to communities of color—have a long history of creating novel solutions, and the speed with which they’ve moved to respond to communities in crisis, uncertain funding, or social distancing has been awe-inspiring. Still, necessary shifts to virtual platforms and creative adaptation to new crises may not be enough to navigate away from an inequitable past and toward an uncertain future. The spark of new ideas, with unequivocal support from donors, boards, and government, will need to lead to sustained and ongoing innovation.

How can nonprofits continue to innovate and go further than they already have?

Through conversations with nonprofit leaders, we offer four principles we heard as they’ve navigated the path forward—not only in the ongoing waves of the pandemic, but also beyond it.

Keep going. COVID-19 has challenged nonprofit leaders to push past what they have done before and explore different ways of working. One leader who has responded is Dr. Ashwin Vasan, president and CEO of Fountain House: “The disruption to our business model forced us to pivot in several ways,” he explained. “We had to move quickly, start from scratch, and ask a set of questions about what our impact can look like moving forward—questions that we’ve never thought about before.”

Fountain House provides opportunities for men and women with mental illness to live, work, and learn. According to Vasan, the 72-year-old Fountain House has historically been a “highly analog” organization. Taking the first steps toward breaking away from practices and approaches that had worked well in the past was no easy task. But the threats the pandemic posed to Fountain House’s members—people living with serious mental illness—demanded no less.

Although it had always lacked a digital presence, within a matter of weeks, the nonprofit piloted, tested, and launched a rudimentary virtual-service model using Zoom, Slack, and Facebook. Fountain House believes its new Virtual Clubhouse model will not only take on the social distancing challenge, it might also enable the nonprofit to engage more deeply and consistently with constituents and reach into new populations, especially younger people who are more digitally-native. That said, the model is still in its early stages; much more work remains. A next challenge is how to best support vulnerable populations who might lack the broadband internet and technology access that enables virtual service delivery to be effective. Fountain House is gauging the limitations of such tools and how best to serve its members, and has engaged in partnerships with Google and T-Mobile to deploy hardware and capacity building to bridge the digital divide for their members.

"We’re in a world where we need to continue moving and we have to keep trying, keep pushing and innovating."
Dr. Ashwin Vasan, President and CEO, Fountain House

The virtual service model is the organization’s first step. Fountain House is exploring opportunities in telehealth, connections to criminal justice efforts, and better coordination with community shelters. “The gravitational pull to wait this out is strong,” conceded Vasan. “We’re in a world where we need to continue moving and we have to keep trying, keep pushing and innovating.” Continuing to imagine new solutions to tomorrow’s challenges has given Vasan—as well as other nonprofits leaders we’ve heard from—a sense of hope and a surge of energy. 

To imagine a different future, re-examine fundamental assumptions. One of the chief challenges for nonprofits is to imagine the unfolding future and land themselves in it. No one can predict what’s coming, but this much is clear: it will be new, and we cannot return to the inequity of “normal." That expectation has led some nonprofits, such as the JED Foundation, to question yesterday’s assumptions and begin to prepare for a different tomorrow.

The pandemic pushed JED, which works with high schools, colleges, universities, and other partners to promote mental health and prevent suicides among teens and young adults, to step back and question: What are the changing needs of schools, students, and parents? What is needed now and in the future? How can we scale our work to best meet these needs?

The nonprofit rapidly convened experts and gathered input from its constituents, to understand how the crisis is compounding students’ most critical mental health challenges. Talking with students, school leaders, parents, and mental health experts confirmed that many preexisting challenges were likely to become more acute, especially for those most vulnerable. As one example, xenophobia is on the rise presenting a real danger, especially for Asian-American youth—with the potential to lead to serious mental health impact and even suicide. JED is now exploring approaches that will help students work through the pandemic’s traumas now and when they return to school—including not only xenophobia, but also post-traumatic stress disorder, heightened anxiety, and economic instability.

At the same time, some of JED’s orthodoxies—that is, “the way we’ve always done things”—have also come into question. Case in point: the organization is exploring how it can incorporate more extensive remote interactions alongside in-person services into its long-term approach—allowing JED to meet increasing demand and support more students. This exploration is a core part of what leads to innovation: testing what JED can accomplish with multiple approaches, exploring ways to scale what works, and escaping the drag of processes that might limit new approaches to solving complex problems.

Said John MacPhee, JED’s executive director and CEO: “The pandemic is increasing mental health stressors and changing the way schools operate.  To advance our mission—which is more urgent than ever—we must question ourselves and we must innovate.”

Focus on those with the greatest needs. Would-be innovators who “think big” run the risk of quickly leaving marginalized communities behind. If anything, it may be necessary to reverse the sequencing—instead of simply aiming for scale, begin with the most vulnerable. That insight, from Angela Glover Blackwell’s Stanford Social Innovation Review article, "The Curb-Cut Effect,” posits that if social-sector actors focus solutions on the challenges confronting the most marginalized communities, those solutions would ripple out to far larger populations. As Blackwell wrote, “When we create the circumstances that allow those who have been left behind to participate and contribute fully—everyone wins.”

Springboard Collaborative, which works to improve literacy among children from low-income families, is taking this principle to heart. In response to COVID-19, Springboard has accelerated efforts to provide resources to families trying to help their children become better readers. “Many of our families have lost their jobs,” commented Alejandro Gibes de Gac, Springboard’s founder and CEO. “Others are on the frontlines as essential workers; all are facing daily trauma and may not have books or the internet to support learning at home.” Gibes de Gac believes that if Springboard doesn’t confront these inequities, the organization won’t make real progress.

"The only way to prevent COVID-19 from deepening inequality for an entire generation of children is to learn with the most vulnerable."
Alejandro Gibes de Gac, Founder and CEO, Springboard

Over the past month, a cross-functional team of Springboard leaders, parents, and teachers participated in a design sprint to create a remote learning experience that would address learning loss from school closures. The team followed a human-centered innovation process, by interviewing families, generating promising ideas, and rapidly developing simple prototypes. Springboard didn’t solely rely on focus groups or seek qualitative input to test the prototypes. Instead, teachers and families used the prototypes and provided feedback on what was working and what was not.

Some would-be innovators take a top-down approach to designing “interventions” without deeply engaging communities—the very people who are closest to their challenges and typically know best how to solve them. As Gibes de Gac countered, “the only way to prevent COVID-19 from deepening inequality for an entire generation of children is to learn with the most vulnerable.” Springboard centered its design process around families, believing that a parents’ love for their children is the single greatest—and most underutilized—asset. Over the course of interviewing families and piloting different approaches with them, Springboard distilled its secret sauce: helping parents, children, and their teachers set reading goals together.

That led to Springboard Learning Accelerators, a program that provides the structure and support for teachers and families to achieve reading goals with children over a five-to-ten week period. Learning Accelerators can be implemented remotely or in-person at any time of the year. Springboard supports multiple ways of engaging with families—video, audio, a Web app, and SMS, as well as more analog approaches, including phone calls and physical books written in the families’ home languages.

By designing an approach that focuses on the specific needs of low-income families and children who are deeply impacted by the pandemic, Springboard has a better chance of scaling its Accelerators to a wider range of children. That’s because Accelerators is flexible across varying levels of broadband connectivity, adaptable across different home languages, and customizable by teachers and families. By focusing on the most marginalized, Gibes de Gac is already seeing demand from partners—multiple school districts will implement this model for virtual summer learning and all 3,000 incoming Teach For America corps members will receive training to set and achieve reading goals with families this summer.

Take evolutionary steps to achieve a revolutionary goal. A well-honed process for continuous, everyday innovation is fairly straightforward: Start small. Generate promising ideas. Then build minimally viable prototypes to test, learn, and gauge which idea has the highest potential to deliver outsize social impact. “Innovation is rooted in a rigorous methodology for experimentation,” emphasized Bridgespan Fellow Ann Mei Chang in a recent article on innovating amid the COVID-19 crisis.

BRAC, one of the world’s largest NGOs, understands that small steps on a continuous learning journey lead to a better chance of fulfilling its ambitious mission: creating opportunities for people living in poverty to realize their full potential. Across its wide array of programs in 11 countries, BRAC continually innovates to help alleviate the problems of people experiencing poverty.

"Our principle is to build the plane as you fly because this is the time of crisis."
Muhammad Musa, Executive Director, BRAC International

For example, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, BRAC set out to improve early-childhood education through a play-based curriculum for children living in Uganda, Tanzania, and Bangladesh. BRAC partnered with the LEGO Foundation to prototype play-based learning labs to address children’s psychological, emotional, and social well-being. To move from idea to action, BRAC conducted more than 200 pilot tests to revise the child-centered curriculum, codify the roles of parent volunteers, and design how the physical play space might best be used. Each pilot presented a small learning opportunity for BRAC, helping it increase the odds that that the result—Play Labs—might collectively add up to something truly revolutionary.

However, the pandemic has made the Play Labs inoperable, since government lockdowns prevented children from gathering and participating in them. By exercising its muscle for continuous innovation, BRAC is piloting and testing new approaches for creating digital labs. One such prototype, which is rapidly being tested and improved, features parent volunteers leading locally created games, rhymes, and songs via mobile devices that are distributed to children and their families—an idea that might potentially reach many more children across the world and fulfill the needs of children who have never benefitted from play-based learning.

These first, evolutionary steps are just one part of BRAC’s ongoing effort to continuously generate an array of innovations, so it is better prepared for whatever comes next. In a recent webinar, Muhammad Musa, executive director of BRAC International, summed up the mindset for sustaining innovation as the pandemic deepens: “Our principle is to build the plane as you fly because this is the time of crisis.”

"COVID is laying bare a level of urgency and opportunity. This is a moment for us to lead and to disrupt what has stood in the way of the change we’ve wanted—and to accelerate what’s possible."
Mora Segal, Chief Executive, Achievement Network

By committing to sustained, trial-and-error experimentation, BRAC and other nonprofits are generating novel approaches to the pandemic’s urgent challenges. In the coming months and years, some of their innovations might succeed while others might falter. However, each success is something to build on; each failure offers a lesson to learn. Progress of any sort can yield significant opportunities to come up with a better idea for building towards a post-pandemic future—one where all people have an equal opportunity to advance their lives.

* * * *

Expecting nonprofits to continue to re-imagine themselves and create new approaches to pursue their missions—at a time when funding is falling and community needs are soaring—is a very big ask. Yet, nonprofits have stepped up and many are leading the way with their creativity and innovation. Like many of the nonprofit leaders we spoke with, Mora Segal, chief executive of Achievement Network, is up for the challenge: “COVID is laying bare a level of urgency and opportunity. This is a moment for us to lead and to disrupt what has stood in the way of the change we’ve wanted—and to accelerate what’s possible.”

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