Nonprofit Coach Explains How “Wildly Successful” Organizations Achieve Impact

Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with Leah Kral, author of “Innovation for Social Change: How Wildly Successful Nonprofits Inspire and Deliver Results,” where Kral delivers a blueprint for nonprofit leaders on how to innovate and lead their organizations into the future.  

With so many people depending on the critical services nonprofits provide, like mental health counseling, food assistance, shelter and more, Kral hopes to provide practical guidance for organizations on how to overcome challenges and inspire strong leaders who drive impact. 

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Can you share a bit about your background and what inspired you to write this book? What are you hoping nonprofit leaders learn from it?  

Kral: For almost two decades, I’ve had the good fortune to have a unique role at The Mercatus Center at George Mason University. I like to describe Mercatus as the home of brainy economists who work to discover what aspects of institutions and culture help societies prosper. I serve as an internal consultant and coach, working alongside our 30 different program teams to help them be their innovative and effective best.  

I help them ask, “How do we know if what we are doing is working?” I help ensure we are strategic, accountable and effective to our donors, to our board, but most importantly to our mission.  

When my executive director suggested I write a book on my passion for nonprofit innovation, I was thrilled. And I knew I wanted to write a book that would help busy nonprofit practitioners achieve better outcomes for those we serve.  

Why do nonprofits matter? Why should we care about them? If you think about it, nonprofits provide some of the greatest gifts to the world and take on some of its hardest problems. Nonprofits are building civil society. Our work eases hunger and fights injustice. Nonprofits that advance education help break the chains of ignorance and poverty. Recovery programs, mental health counseling, medical care and research provide healing. Arts programs lift the human spirit.  

To the stakeholders and members of Philanthropy Roundtable, I’m betting that a nonprofit has touched your life, or the life of someone you care about. Perhaps your passion for a social problem has led you to generously donate or volunteer.  

But think about what it means if a nonprofit provides mediocre services to an at-risk young person. I’ve seen it. So many people are counting on this work. The stakes are high.  

We need organizations that empower us to ask courageous questions and innovate and experiment to discover what works best. What makes some nonprofits inspired, creative and innovative while others misfire? Is there a secret sauce? I set out to explore that question. I began researching stories of innovation, success, and importantly, failure – from my own nonprofit and other nonprofit powerhouses like Mayo Clinic, Habitat for Humanity and many others. The research and interviews for this book took two and a half years. 

Q: In your book, you identify six basic principles that can help nonprofits be more innovative. Can you briefly describe these principles and highlight a real-life example on how these principles have been successfully applied?  

Kral:  One of my favorite stories in the book is the example of St. Benedict’s Prep School, a small but mighty 100-year-old private school in New Jersey that has been featured on 60 Minutes and in a PBS documentary.  

When circumstances beyond its control forced the school to close its doors, a handful of school leaders stayed—and found a way to turn difficulties into opportunities. These social entrepreneurs have transformed the educational experience by creating a student-run school. Yes, a student-run school; that’s not a typo.  

Through bold experiments, bottom-up empowerment and listening to the needs of stakeholders, the school’s dedicated leadership has created a novel approach to teaching at-risk young men that meaningfully and measurably changes lives. Make no mistake, the program at St. Benedict’s is rigorous, with an 11-month school year, a boot camp for new students and a capstone student-led hike required for all first-year students.  

St. Benedict’s will proudly tell anyone who asks that 98% of their students go to college, and 80% have completed college or are enrolled and on track to graduate. Compare this to 50% of Newark’s families living in poverty and only 12% of the adult population having a college degree. You can read more about their approach to innovation in my book.    

Based on stories like theirs, we can identify six basic, mutually reinforcing principles for nonprofit teams to apply: 

  1. Like a detective, be a fearless and relentless problem solver. Identify hidden needs. 
  2. Ideate. Start small but dream big. Whether designing small experiments or identifying partners and building ecosystems for social change, boldly think through where you want to go and how you might get there. 
  3. Unlock potential. Create a collaborative workplace culture that leaves room for experimentation and play, spontaneity and discovery. 
  4. Unlock even more potential. Empower bottom-up decision making, encourage savvy risk taking and reward tough-minded trade-off thinking. 
  5. Clarify what’s working and what’s not through continuous learning and stress testing to accelerate your impact. Build a commonsense evaluation approach that supports agility, experimentation and team learning. Avoid measurement pitfalls that bog teams down. 
  6. Persuade. You must be really good at this. Stand out from the crowd, secure resources and win buy-in for your idea. 

For each of the six principles, the book provides practical how-to steps accompanied with real-world stories that bring the lessons to life.  

Q: Your book is titled “Innovation for Social Change.” Can you define what innovation should look like in the nonprofit sector and why it’s so important?  

Kral: I think about innovation simply as finding new and better ways of doing things. Innovation can be big or small. It can be national social change, like the American civil rights movement, or how philanthropic groups brought about the creation of the 911 emergency system.  

Innovation can also be small. Imagine walking into the lobby of a legal aid clinic, where the receptionist has had the idea of changing the intake of client information from a paper-based system to a handheld tablet. This seemingly small improvement has saved steps, time and money that can now be put to better use elsewhere.  

Both big and small innovations matter. We want to encourage both types and build them into our everyday workplace practices. How do we do that, and what gets in the way?    

The graphic below is based on responses from nonprofit team members about what gets in the way of workplace innovation. Their responses should give us a lot to think about:   

Nonprofit leaders manage teams and have influence over the systems and processes of an organization. It is essential for leaders to give careful attention to the messy realities of the workplace and how we can remove these obstacles and help draw out the entrepreneurial and innovative best from our colleagues.   

This is important. Failing to empower people on the front lines, the ones doing the work, will be everyone’s loss. These are the people with the best ideas. If we don’t pay attention to this, entrepreneurial staff will take their time and talents elsewhere. 

Q: How do you meaningfully measure success for a nonprofit endeavor?  

Kral: I see nonprofit teams getting justifiably frustrated with metrics and evaluation all the time. We can easily be measuring the wrong thing. We can create bad incentives. Poorly designed metrics can waste our time. 

I love the quote by author Stephen Covey, that goes, “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” Our good intentions do not automatically mean we have clarity about what we need to do. That’s where evaluation and metrics, when done right, can help us. It is about asking good questions, finding better ways of doing things and discovering better outcomes for the people we serve. 

Take the nonprofit Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, which has a strategic effort for infection prevention. They began to closely track how many patients developed infections after surgery and assessed how the infections were developing. The effort helped them identify ways to reduce the number of infections by half.   

Metrics, when done right, help us answer the question, “How do we know if what we are doing is working?” And the information should lead to action or decisions. Evaluation and metrics must be meaningful and actionable. They can help you decide if a program is worth pursuing. They also can help you test your theories and learn from experiments.   

Q: What kind of internal cultures do strong leaders build and why is this important?  

Kral: Mayo Clinic is perhaps the best nonprofit hospital in the world. They are famous for finding innovative solutions for people who are very sick. Their reputation didn’t happen by accident. In interviews, team members of Mayo Clinic say that good patient outcomes occur because employees are empowered to carry out their organizational values. One value is, “The needs of the patient come first.”  They seem to truly live this. 

Team members are trained, empowered and encouraged to put those values into practice. For example, a team member at Mayo said, “If the employee’s choices are either getting back to work on time or taking 10 minutes to get a wheelchair for a patient who seems unsteady, the patient will most likely get a wheelchair.”  How wonderful! That is bottom-up empowerment. 

In another story, the Mayo Clinic night staff were concerned about how noise can affect a patient’s sleep, which is very important to the healing process. They came up with the idea to conduct noise studies. This led to designing quieter flooring, quieter wheels on carts and lower decibels for overhead paging. That’s innovation and bottom-up empowerment.   

A culture like this is intentional. It requires leaders to get out of the way. It involves taking risks and leaving room for bottom-up experimentation, and even failure, from which we can learn and adjust. These are practices that any type of nonprofit with any size budget, big or small, can learn from and replicate.   

Nonprofit innovation is central to making our world a better place. What kinds of human endeavors and social good will come about 50 years from now that we can’t even imagine now? My hope is that the case studies and practices in this book will inspire current and future social entrepreneurs and those with generous spirits to continue to dream big, ask the right questions, experiment and innovate boldly. 

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