Unpacking the Myth of an Industry Without a Product: Nonprofit Product Innovation at PBS, WWF, USC and 826 Valencia
The development world is acutely aware that some people will never give. These non-donors are seen as useless to an organization’s strategic need and are treated as such. They are bombarded with solicitations, but because there is no mutual empathy, our attempts are destined to fail.
My background is in cognitive science, but I'm currently enrolled in the Design Strategy MBA program at California College of the Arts, where we spend at least half the design process on user research. If we look at the user of our services in the nonprofit industry, what trends would we uncover? One I spotted was that the vast majority do not give.
You might have heard the terminology “persona” or “archetype” thrown around by design firms and consultants—and what they mean by this is a set of observations about a particular user. This user is fed up with solicitations, they are on the do not call list, they have all our mailing lists blocked. Naturally, we assume they are of no value to our organization.
The reality, though, is that we’ve just presented them with a stimulus that does not match their expectation to take the desired action we request. My hypothesis is that this non-donor archetype will never respond well to being asked for money, but that we might be able to come up with something that would work better if we could get past the idea that philanthropy is a sector without a product.
Writer and nonprofit innovator Dave Eggers made this leap back in 2000 when he started 826 Valencia, better known as San Francisco’s Pirate Store. The brilliance of the store isn’t really in its products, but its business model—where the sales of peg legs and eye patches go to fund a writing center for underserved communities. Today he's got seven other locations across the country, in cities including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
On a much larger scale, PBS withholds its regular content once a year to run a sort of nonprofit QVC it calls a "pledge drive." Hawking bundles that might contain items for a child, or books on Downton Abbey's Highclere Castle, PBS understands different people want different products and different price tags. High margin items like USB drives filled with behind-the-scenes footage provide an opportunity to monetize enthusiast content and help PBS create meaningful content-driven relationships with their donors.
On the enormous scale, World Wildlife Fund has had to clarify its claim to allow donors to “adopt an animal,” because folks have literally given money with the expectation that an endangered tiger is going to show up on their front door step. Talk about a product!
But there’s more to it than that, and the branding and web presence of WWF is immaculately consistent and user focused. The nonprofit won a Webby this year for its seamless web integration of its users' desired products and services, including volunteer opportunities, classroom materials about animals, stuffed animal bundles of all shapes and sizes and, of course, just plain old philanthropy. The experience is stunning, but the point here is that when we say product, we might also mean web content driven by user research and segmentation.
Taking it back to the context of a university, I joked with my boss that at my Alma, USC, there’s hardly a brick on campus that doesn’t have a donor’s name on it. Even if Cal has decided we're classier than that, we can't deny the success of making an opportunity usually only available to the Warren Buffetts and Bill Gateses of the world (having your name on a building) available to everyone with $1,000 in their pocket. The question, however, remains: What are the products that will activate this swath of selfish altruists, and where are they developed in a nonprofit setting?
In my last position as assistant director of development research at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, we discovered more community events took place than fundraisers could staff, so our solution was to automate this interaction—even getting as far as a working prototype and obtaining funding.
What I learned in the process is that “skunk works” projects need to be built in a research and development setting, where all of the necessary resources are in place to implement the proposed solution once it can be financially justified. It also helps to have a group with an interdisciplinary/interdepartmental skill set and a high level of buy-in from senior management. An alternative is to have an innovation consultancy do this work for us.
In the end, even this level of experimentation was out of reach for the $80-million-dollar-a-year, hundred-plus-year-old institution, because of a single bureaucratic hurdle: Research and development did not fall under the responsibilities of development research.
I want to close today by asking what one action you could take to bring forward a new idea or tear down a bureaucratic hurdle to help someone else’s good idea flourish? Where does research and development live in your nonprofit organization, who are you innovating for, and how?