Public charities and private foundations play a vital role in society, addressing challenges that affect underserved and at-risk populations and communities. Yet, the very organizations that help so many people also face their own challenges, including limited staff resources and shrinking budgets, that can keep them from achieving their missions.
There are many factors affecting resources that organizational leaders can’t influence. But one frequently overlooked tool has the power to get more employees out of the back office and out serving their community: continuous process improvement. When organizations commit to examining and improving their day-to-day processes, they have the potential to dramatically increase their human capital and invest it back into their mission.
Consider Communities Foundation of Texas' North Texas Giving Day. Over the course of eighteen hours on September 20, the group helped 2,690 nonprofits raise nearly $48.5 million — a 23 percent increase over 2017. Indeed, in each of the last ten years, North Texas Giving Day has raised more money from more donors for more organizations. Yet, the program's budget has not increased nearly as fast as its results. Through continuous process improvement, Communities Foundation of Texas has been able to recapture time and reinvest it in its mission.
What is continuous process improvement?
In continuous process improvement, proven tools are used to maximize existing resources, enabling organizations to address the pain points they experience every day while achieving improved results. At its most basic level, continuous process improvement involves creating a culture that supports continuous efforts to ensure maximum resources are dedicated to an organization’s mission.
The initial cost of continuous process improvement is employee time and out-of-pocket costs for training and coaching. Payoff in the form of recaptured time and positive feedback can reach 1.5x to 3x the initial investment in the first year, and 6.5x to 8x times by the third year.
Four things all nonprofits can do
Think continuous process improvement is too complex for your organization? It doesn't have to be. Here are four tips that can help public charities and private foundations of any size recapture time and reinvest it in their mission:
Train to retain. Because people are the heart of any nonprofit, it's important not only to hire the best and brightest, but to keep them on board once they've been trained. By training employees in continuous process improvement, organizations can increase their capacity to serve their communities for years to come.
Find a transformational leader. Continuous process improvement requires commitment from all levels of an organization. But earning buy-in is easier when you have a leader of the process who believes wholeheartedly in it. Find someone to lead your continuous process improvement effort who's excited about change, is action-oriented, and whose enthusiasm for the process is contagious. Finding the right person to serve as your organization’s first continuous process improvement champion — and supporting him or her in their efforts — will help get the entire organization on board with the program.
Pick the right project. One way to build enthusiasm for continuous process improvement is to demonstrate its potential right out of the gate. To do that, start with a project likely to have the biggest impact. In many cases, that means looking at processes in accounts payable or donation processing. Both of those areas touch a lot of people and have the potential to deliver meaningful results, fast.
Maximize the tools you have. Adding resources isn't always possible on the lean budget of the typical nonprofit organization, but there's almost always room to do more with the tools you have. For example, most organizations have an accounting software package on their computers, but not everyone uses the program to its full potential. Bottom line: the tools you need may be right in front of you just waiting to be called into the game.
Organizations in the nonprofit sector will continue to play an important role in their communities, and by committing to continuous process improvement they can increase their impact even more. How much? Starting in 2012, the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations, Minnesota's largest community foundation, recaptured thousands of work hours through a process-optimization program that saw it redesign its grant-intake processes and implement new technologies, enabling it to reduce the administrative workload of community-facing positions. Those actions, in turn, enabled community impact staff and program officers to invest more time in advancing equity and strengthening communities in the Twin Cities region. The optimization process also reduced the number of internal requests to add capacity through new full-time positions.
Continuous process improvement takes time and a commitment to examining, on a consistent basis, the things our organizations do and the reasons they do them. But as nonprofits continue to find ways to do more, everyone benefits.
Lee Kuntz is founder and president of Innovation Process Design, Inc., which works with nonprofits to examine their work with fresh eyes, transform how that work is done, and create real results.