Ep 78: What Nonprofits Can Learn from Tech Start-ups (with Ann Mei)

by Joan Garry

Organizations of all kinds know they must innovate or die out. But this word causes nonprofit leaders to break out in cold sweats. Why?


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Innovation is no longer just a Silicon Valley buzzword. Organizations of all kinds — business, political, educational, cultural, charitable — know the choice they face is to innovate or die out. But it is my hypothesis that this word causes nonprofit leaders to break out in cold sweats. Why?

Innovation – trying something new? Piloting? Risk of failure? Innovation ignites the notion of “task as risk” in the mindset of a nonprofit leader.

Let’s face it. Nonprofit leaders worry about risk. Risk can lead to failure. And nonprofit board members often see their role as managing risk.

And yet……

The demand for social innovation is real. In a 2017 survey of 145 nonprofit leaders, the Bridgespan Group found 80% considered innovation to be an “urgent imperative”, but only 40% believed that their organizations are set up to do so.

What happens when you try to apply the lessons of start-up tech innovation to the social sector? Today we ask someone who was faced with the cold hard reality of these challenges and discuss how she grappled with them. We’ll hear some practical advice about introducing innovation into your work as a nonprofit leader.

You’ll also hear a phrase that is new to me and I’m guessing may be to you. LEAN IMPACT. Now “lean” is a word that the social sector knows way too much about but this phrase is actually a kind of a movement in the tech space that has some real lessons and positive implications in the social sector.

About Ann Mei

Ann Mei Chang is a leading advocate for social innovation who brings together unique insights from her extensive work across the tech industry, nonprofits, and the US government. As Chief Innovation Officer at USAID, Ann Mei served as the first Executive Director of the US Global Development Lab, engaging the best practices for innovation from Silicon Valley to accelerate the impact and scale of solutions to the world’s most intractable challenges. She was previously the Chief Innovation Officer at Mercy Corps and served the US Department of State as Senior Advisor for Women and Technology in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

Prior to her pivot to the public and social sector, Ann Mei was a seasoned technology executive, with more than 20 years’ experience at such leading companies as Google, Apple, and Intuit, as well as at a range of startups. As Senior Engineering Director at Google, she led worldwide engineering for mobile applications and services, delivering 20x growth to $1 billion in annual revenues in just three years.

Ann Mei currently serves on the boards of BRAC USA and IREX. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Stanford University, is a member of the Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellows’ class of 2011, and was recognized as one of the “Women In the World: 125 Women of Impact” by Newsweek/The Daily Beast in 2013. She is a keynote speaker who has been featured at TEDx MidAtlantic, SxSW, Social Good Summit, SOCAP, and Lean Startup Week, as well as numerous nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies.

In this episode

  • What are the ‘lean impact’ techniques you can apply today?
  • How to apply the lessons of start up tech innovation to the social sector
  • Why success may rest in starting small
  • How the scarcity model can become self-fulfilling prophecy
  • How to appropriately size up your risk and therefore mitigate losses
  • Staying laser focused on your problem may involve changing what you thought was the solution
  • How do you shift the mindset of your board?
  • Are metrics always numbers? What matters more than vanity metrics?
  • Should you be in love with your problem or with the solution?
  • How evaluating solutions with an open mind to experiment, adopt best practices and partner with others may get you where you are going faster.