Adaptation vs. Innovation: The Threat of Short-Term Thinking

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For the past decade, nonprofits who have brought in a significant amount of their own revenue to augment donations and grant dollars were praised as innovators. Where fee-for-service revenue models, oftentimes allowing nonprofits to augment free services with paid services, were once considered a pillar of sustainability, they are now one of the largest threats to a nonprofit’s bottom line. 

Many organizations, including ones we’ve spotlighted in the past few weeks, are finding ways to adapt their programming to meet a virtual environment. These adaptations, for many, are framed as ways to ‘continue the mission’ during these times. A silver lining – many have led to opportunities for organizations to expand their current audience and reach. 

You see this approach mirrored in the private sector as well. Yoga studios, fitness clubs, and other membership-based fee-for-service businesses are offering their programming via Facebook Live, Zoom, and Hangouts Meet. Some have even found ways to continue bringing in some revenue through membership services. 

Thinking about how to adapt this programming to run virtually is essential, but we want to offer a slightly different view.

Most of us have come to terms with the fact that the world isn’t going back to normal anytime soon. While a pillar to immediate survival will be a nonprofit’s ability to adapt, their ability to innovate will lead them to long-term health.

I’ll tell you a story. Recently, a prospective client (nonprofit) approached me about ‘adapting’ their workshop series to work in a virtual environment. They had all the content, and the idea is that they would reconfigure the format to allow them to still launch and run the program – because their audience still needed it. 

A little background: This is a fee-for-service program, originally intended to be offered in a cohort-model through 1-day in-person sessions monthly for eight months. During each session, 2-3 subject matter experts would attend and talk through a different component of the overall topic, and attendees (expected 8-10) would engage in group discussion about how the content applied to their organizations.

So, what would it look like to adapt this program? The organization was originally thinking about offering the eight sessions virtually, with subject matter experts video-conferencing in, and a facilitated conversation afterward. They were considering building in technology equipment and a small technology training into the front end of the program, and offering increased guidance to participants between sessions. 

Would this work? Sure. 

Would it work well? Absolutely not. 

I challenged them to consider the question: What would it look like for you to scrap your original plan and build an entirely virtual workshop series around this particular topic (no virtual workshop series currently exists for this topic/audience)? Thinking about the environment, what is the target audience and geographical scope? What are the different formats this could take? What formats would work well for the target audience? 

After much discussion, they realized that while the content would stay the same, the entire structure of the program needed to change. It’s not eight virtual 5-hour video conference sessions – it’s developing a cohort-based interactive course, coupled with coaching, and small group activities throughout, with the potential for ‘in-person’ meetups if such a thing were possible later in the program. This overall change in structure allowed planning for everything else to fall into place – breaking up the 5-hour days into small chunks and delivering them in modules through a learning management system, developing an interactive workbook, having flexible content they could use in other areas of their organization, etc… 

Some people think this is too much work. Those people will be kicking themselves if the pandemic peaks again (as predicted by experts) in the fall. For the organization – this was about slowing down, and spending an additional 40-50 hours truly innovating. They will be patting themselves on the back when/if the pandemic peaks again, and in three years, when they’ve built a large revenue line by scaling this one-of-a-kind program to reach a national audience. 

As your organization is looking for ways to adapt your programming and stay afloat during this pandemic, I would encourage you to take it a step further. Zoom out and think about how you can truly innovate, not just for the time-being, but in ways that will continue to benefit your mission and your stakeholders long after this pandemic has passed.

Sangfroid Strategy helps organizations learn from where they’ve been, figure out where they want to go, and map out what they need to do to get there. We are experts when it comes to helping organizations build resiliency and move through difficult times and navigate complex situations.

Have you or a nonprofit organization you work with found innovative ways to deliver your programs and provide your social good during these times? We’re collecting and sharing these stories – and want to hear from you!  Tell us your story here!

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