4 Agile Startup Practices Empowering Nonprofits

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

– Albert Einstein

Part 2 in our blog series on innovation focuses on fast innovation using Agile Methodologies. Many of our readers may be unfamiliar with the term “Agile” or “Agile Development.”  The origins of Agile come from a set of project management principles that were created by software developers in the 1990’s. The term is now used more broadly and has since been applied to almost any industry/job under the sun. One creative person has even applied Agile Methodologies to parenting (see this amazing TED Talk).

Many tech startups and R&D groups at larger companies use “Agile” methodologies to manage their product development and marketing teams. Agile is a powerful tool because it allows teams to break down projects into short, well-defined, 2-week intervals called “Sprints” with clear deliverables at the end of each interval. As a result, the agile method allows teams to learn and make changes to campaigns or projects at a high frequency basis based on real time data. It also drives accountability and transparency for your team.

We don’t have time to fully flesh out all Agile practices in a single blog post, but we’ve provided some basic principles below to begin setting a framework for Agile marketing and fundraising at a nonprofit. If you can integrate these basic principles, you should begin to see major strides in innovation at your organization.

1 – Conduct regular “Sprint Planning” meetings.  Sprint Planning meetings are the practice of meeting with your team to plan out your work for the next two week period. The result of Sprint Planning is a clear work plan with specific tasks and ownership related to your team’s goals. During your Sprint Planning meetings, you should allow the actual people completing the work (your team) to talk directly with the actual people receiving the benefit of the work. For example, if your marketing team is doing a creative piece for your program team, then you should have someone from the program team in the room during Sprint Planning to provide requirements and feedback. This practice of shortening the distance to the customer is critical for effective innovation. A more complete description of Sprint Planning can be found here.

2 – During Sprint Planning, each team member should demonstrate their deliverables from the previous 2 weeks. The demo should be completed in front of your entire team. We encourage moving a whiteboard and large computer or screen into the Sprint Planning room so that your team can literally SHOW their work during the meeting. This practice creates strong accountability and provides an immediate feedback loop for changes.

3 – The tasks assigned during Sprint Planning should be broken down into small, discrete units (called User Stories). User Stories should be given a time estimate, and they should take less than one day to complete. If a story might take longer than a day, we recommend breaking the task down into smaller units. Each Story has two key features:

  • A clear statement of how the task directly serves a customer/donor or ties to an organization objective (e.g. “As a Donor, I want to see my full giving history when I log in to the website.”)
  • A clear time estimate and ownership

Many companies find it useful to write the story on a yellow sticky note and post it on a wall in the meeting room. The sticky notes allow you to physically arrange the work on the wall and re-prioritize tasks by moving the notes around. When you have enough sticky notes on the wall to fill up your team’s time, then the sprint is full.

4 – Each story in a sprint should be directly tied to specific key objectives and results that move your organization forward. If you can’t clearly articulate how the story impacts your cause directly, then you should carefully evaluate if the story is worth doing. For more information on how to align all your work to the organization’s results, I’d strongly recommend checking out the OKR methodology used by Google . Again, the “end user” of the campaign, initiative, program, etc. is a vital part of tying impact and results to Sprint Planning. If you invite the teams that you serve to these meetings, you’ll dramatically reduce the risk of working on an idea that doesn’t add value. By using cross-functional teams where everyone feels ownership, you’ll improve buy-in and generate better ideas.

Nonprofit Tip
Moving to the Agile method of planning and scheduling can be a shock for many nonprofits. We recommend starting with one single project to complete with Agile. It’s much easier to shift a culture to Agile if the team has seen it work on one self-contained project first.


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