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What the Social-Impact Sector Can Learn from Silicon Valley

Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

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As the home of many of the world’s fastest growing startups, Silicon Valley has become synonymous with a culture of innovation and discovery. Businesses have adopted startup techniques for success, and many nonprofits are following suit. Though mission-driven social-impact organizations may seem to be the complete opposite of profit-driven startups, they have some traits in common—big visions, dedicated employees, and a desire for change.

So what lessons can your organization take from the Silicon Valley buzz?

Innovate constantly

Silicon Valley is big on innovation. In practice, innovators experiment with new ways to get things done and learn as much from failure as they do from success. "Fall in love with the problem, not your solution," advises former Google exec and USAID Chief Innovation Officer Ann Mei Chang in her book "Lean Impact," a guide to social entrepreneurship.

This means being willing to alter, re-imagine, or even discard a solution if it doesn’t have the desired results. It may also mean revisiting the outcomes you expect and analyzing how they fit into your overall vision.

Social-impact organizations—especially long-standing ones—can fall prey to "mission drift." As the day-to-day becomes overwhelming, nonprofits may settle for short-term fixes instead of seeking to make a lasting impact. Eventually they move away from their original goals. Getting too attached to a specific solution or method (whether or not it works) will also run an organization into trouble.

An innovation mindset can get you back on track. Your organization’s mission statement probably references a broader change you want to make or a problem you want to solve. If your current programs aren’t progressing toward your mission, it might be time to imagine programs that will.

One executive leader uses the "if-then" model to start his staff brainstorming: "If we believed in this specific outcome, then how would we act?" Another jumping-off point might be: “What would our organization accomplish if we had infinite resources? How can we approach this goal with the resources we have?”

Aim high and scale up

Startups that survive may have impressive visions, but like smart nonprofits, they don’t bite off more than they can chew. In other words, don’t expect your organization to erase structural inequalities overnight. Change is a gradual process.

The concept of scale occurs a lot in startup lingo. As a verb, scaling means starting small and increasing your ambitions as your resources increase. Once you establish trust in a community, for instance, you can implement and deliver an outreach program. Once you meet the needs of your current clients, you can roll out a plan to provide more services.

The temptation may be to "scale" too early or try to meet big goals before your organization is ready. A realistic timeline for growth, including a specific financial breakdown, can help ensure you stay on target.

Value transparency

Intentional connection is something many startups do exceptionally well. Employees share ideas, attend networking events, compare notes about their projects, and forge new partnerships. Large, rapidly growing startups may hold regular staff meetings where everyone can air their questions and concerns. And they encourage constant communication on a day-to-day basis.

If your workplace has an open office—a setup many startups use—you’re familiar with the benefits and drawbacks of constant visibility. But there is one thing that's for certain: everyone knows what everyone else is working on and where their own work fits into the big picture. Transparency can be extra helpful in an organization where colleagues bring very different skill sets and specialties to the table.

Depending on the nature of your work, you may have to balance privacy concerns with open communication; the specifics will vary. The goal is to foster a network of cooperation, not competition. From co-workers in the cubicle next door to leaders in similar organizations around the world, you’re all in it together. When your organization hits a snag, you can think of it as a group challenge to overcome rather than a problem a few people have to handle alone. Some organizations practice using "we" language" instead of "I" language, bringing everyone on board.

Make data work for you

Then there are the numbers. Stanford University instructor Kathleen Kelly Janus, author of "Social Startup Success," questioned many nonprofits about their data use. She found while 75 percent of nonprofits collect some sort of data, only 6 percent believe they can use data well.

Social impact organizations often need statistics to show for their effort. Funders want to know how their donations are being put to work. Nonprofits’ annual reports are examples of data transparency, showing the cost breakdown of initiatives and how dollars translate to impact.

When it comes to daily operations, data can show what’s working and, perhaps more importantly, identify what needs to change. Without a system for monitoring and evaluating existing programs, you run the risk of getting stuck in the same patterns. And the more data you’re handling, the more essential this evaluation becomes. Global development nonprofits working for health and human rights around the world, for instance, have high-stakes projects and a crucial need to measure outcomes. 

You don’t have to be a math whiz to analyze data, but you should be able to look at patterns over time. Tracking demographic shifts in the population you serve may lead to a change in the resources you provide. Keeping track of the number of responses you get to your email outreach can help you tweak your message. Running a test drive of a brand new initiative lets you look at a micro-version of the cost breakdown and see if it’s sustainable in the long term. Numbers can often answer questions much more quickly than words can. 

Another Silicon Valley trick (or "hack" as they say) is keeping an open mind about the multiple possibilities for social and organizational change. Pay attention to what other social impact organizations are doing, and get inspired ... the next big idea could come from you. 


Have you applied any Silicon Valley tips to your social-impact work? Tell us about it on Twitter.

Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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