April 22, 2021

How Nonprofits Can Power Innovation Beyond Their Core Programs

The Engine 1/Engine 2 concept can help nonprofits navigate the tension between continuing to run their core programs and services (their Engine 1), while simultaneously investing in innovation (their Engine 2). It’s a familiar challenge for many nonprofits as they succeed and grow.

Engine 1 and Engine 2 for Nonprofits


It’s a common conundrum for nonprofits. On one hand, they want to expand their existing programs and services to meet ever-growing needs. On the other, they feel pulled to innovate to develop new solutions that can extend their impact much, much further. It is often hard to pursue both.

In our work with dozens of entrepreneurial nonprofits, we’ve found Bain & Company’s Engine 1/Engine 2 concept to be particularly useful. Engine 1 efforts focus on delivering what you already know how to do. In contrast, Engine 2 work is all about break-through innovation—developing, testing, and refining new solutions. Where succeeding with Engine 1 requires discipline and repeatability, Engine 2 demands requires agility, creativity, and a healthy appetite for risk.

engine 1 engine 2 graphic

For more on Engine 1, Engine 2 thinking, see the Stanford Social Innovation Review article "Twin Engines for Propelling Social Impact."

Questions to Determine if You Should Invest in an Engine 2

Should our organization invest in an Engine 2?

Does your organization face a significant gap between its current trajectory and what's needed to achieve its mission? If you answer "yes" to one or both of the following key questions, you may want to invest in an Engine 2:

If you are interested in learning more about investing in an Engine 2, see our companion resource: Firing Up Your Engine 2: Guidance for Getting Started.

REACH: Is your current program model unlikely to allow you to reach a meaningful proportion of those who you aspire to serve—especially those who are most marginalized? This might be the case if:

  • Your solution is not simple enough to be replicated with fidelity and/or delivered effectively at multiple sites by your organization or by others.
  • Your costs aren't low enough given funding sources.
  • You don't have a reliable, renewable source of funding that will support this work at scale.

RESULTS: Are you concerned that you are not making a significant enough impact? This might be the case if:

  • Your success rate is lower than desired.
  • Your impact isn't sustained but rather fades over time.
  • The most marginalized individuals you serve aren't achieving comparable results.

On-demand Webinar

How your nonprofit can balance meeting today's needs while investing in innovation

Join the authors of “Twin Engines for Propelling Social Impact,” (Laura Lanzerotti and Ann Mei Chang) as they provide an overview of the Engine 1 / Engine 2 concept, and gain insight from two social sector leaders (Melissa Connelly, CEO of OneGoal, and Dr. Jordan Kassalow, founder of VisionSpring and co-founder of EYElliance) who share their experiences applying it.

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