Lean Impact Summit photoThough Eric Ries makes it clear in The Lean Startup that a lean framework can and should be applied to existing organizations in particular social enterprises examples of longstanding organizations in the nonprofit sector wholly adopting the framework are difficult to come across. But last week, GuideStar USA's Senior Director of Products and Marketing, Evan Paul, told nonprofit and social enterprise leaders at the Lean for Social Good Summit in San Francisco how his nearly 20-year-old organization has made a conscious effort to do just that and promote accountability across the sector.

"Our mission has very much been: 'How do we enable a lean social sector?'" Paul said.

Not Just for Startups

One of the few non-startup presenters at the Summit, GuideStar USA,  revealed how a multimillion dollar organization entrenched in traditional business processes has adopted the framework popularized by Ries' book to eliminate waste and rapidly innovate to create value.

Paul admitted that GuideStar USA basically used waterfall development for its first 14 years of existence before shifting to an iterative, agile methodology five years ago. Only in the past few years, he told us, his organization has been committed to shifting even further toward lean processes. The lean framework from Ries' text uses agile development as a starting point, pairing it with thorough experimentation and direct feedback to test assumptions, minimize waste, and drive innovation through validated learning.

In its beginning stages of adopting a lean framework, GuideStar USA set up an advisory panel to learn more quickly how it could deliver value to its members. You can read more about that process in a post on Agility Feat.

Failing Fast, Learning Faster

For an organization trying to adopt lean practices, getting leadership on board and willing to support experimentation and indeed supporting opportunities that can lead to failures is critical. One of the primary goals of a lean framework is actually achieving that failure as quickly as possible in a way that facilitates learning.

"Nobody knows what the right things to measure are across the nonprofit sector," said Paul. "We know that we're going to have to do a lot of experimentation we're going try things out."

Former GuideStar USA CEO Bob Ottenhoff wrote about adopting lean at GuideStar before he moved on from the organization in late 2012. For him, one of the key benefits was creating an environment in which innovation and entrepreneurship was encouraged among employees, in turn strengthening organizational culture.

"The Lean Startup identifies another principle that should resonate with all nonprofit leaders: the value of our people," Ottenhoff wrote.

Leaning Toward a Pivot

Paul said the IRS "getting its act together" has incentivized GuideStar USA to used a lean framework   once the IRS provides more of the services traditionally provided by GuideStar USA, the organization could benefit from its lean approach through experimentation that leads to a "pivot," a fundamental change in some aspect of the business.

Though agile and lean are most often used to describe software development methodologies, these processes can apply to nearly any type of organization. 

Has your organization tried to adopt a lean framework in regard to any of its work?

Carlos Bergfeld
Product Content Manager, TechSoup Global