A note from Lean Impact: 

We’ve been big fans of Benevolent ever since we heard of them last year – it’s a great example of a nonprofit leveraging technology to solve very specific needs that change people’s lives. In the post below, founder Megan Kashner describes how she approached one of the Lean Startup principles: Fail Fast. Read her thoughtful post below to learn about her journey with Benevolent, and how failing fast enabled her team to focus and deliver even greater impact.

What of those we fail when we fail fast?

There’s a good deal of talk lately about failing fast, failing early, failing big, and leaning forward. In the nonprofit sector, these conversations often come around to questions about whether the donor community is ready to put its capital where its mouth is on supporting risk-taking — good questions to ask. In this post, though, I want to look at a question that nonprofits themselves face with difficulty.

It’s about the tricky dynamic between failing fast and failing people. When we’re talking about a social intervention or innovation, most times there are real people with real lives, goals, dreams, and frailties involved. So how, then, to innovate and take risks in the human sector without failing the many real people looking to you for help? Here’s how Benevolent approached our start-up year with our people and partners top-of-mind.

Benevolent launched online in December of last year. We piloted only in the Chicago area so that we could learn, develop and grow our platform and approach right here in our own community. For those of you who don’t know Benevolent, you can check us out at www.benevolent.net. We’re building a national platform that fills in the gaps in the safety net. We help low-income adults and their families over one-time hurdles along their way to their goals. People identify their own specific needs, and we make it possible for donors to contribute to meet them – like helping someone get bus passes to attend a computer class; welding gear to take a job as a welder; furniture after a fire; or winter clothing in a pinch. We work in partnership with local nonprofits who know their own clients and constituents well and can work with us to bring these personal stories forward.

Our risk, of course, was that in the early days we could not know precisely what our yet-to-be-sourced donor pool would want to contribute to, which aspects of a “need” profile would be most important, and how much would be too much to try to raise for one person’s need. Had we come out of the gate presenting hundreds of people’s stories and needs, we might have failed hundreds of people, because in the early days, our success rate in fully meeting a need was about 50%. We needed to fail fast, and we did. We learned, changed and pivoted our approaches, and kept moving forward.

To be clear, 50% stinks when you’re talking about people’s lives, goals and hopes. There were four people, for example, whose needs didn’t get met because, as we came to learn, donors are some what “ooged” out (that’s the technical term) by other people’s dental needs. Here they are: Isabel, Victoria, Maria and Nikki.

There were some whose needs didn’t get met because we allowed them to post for something that cost too much money and turned out to be daunting to our small-dollar donors. Those failures don’t happen today. We’ve learned and corrected.

I’d say that our fast fail has been, on balance, a success. We’re talking about making these mistakes on the needs of five, ten, or fifteen people, not five hundred. Not that failing even one person is okay. We wish we’d known then what we know now. This was deliberate, though, this starting slow, failing fast, and making quick corrections.

Make no mistake, we’re not done failing. We’ll keep shifting and pivoting, learning and forging new paths. You can be sure, though, that we’ll keep the Isabels and Marias in mind as we do and we’ll do everything we can to mitigate the risk to real people.

When you’re working in the human sector, you have to learn as fast as you fail, learn while you’re falling, and stretch out a safe landing when you can. It’s not as easy as the platitudes of “make big bets,” “lean forward,” and “take risks.” These are people’s lives, communities, reputations, and futures — not things we can ever put at risk lightly.

Guest post by Megan Kashner via BethKanter.org

Want to learn more? Visit us here.