035: Should you go out of business to achieve the greatest impact?

In depth conversation with the founders of ChangeBetter.org about their journey starting and how they approach the sector. Sometimes you need to merge with larger organizations to achieve the true mission of your organization. Founder Amanda Ashton and Ellie Zietlin discuss their approach to helping nonprofits discover their impact model and talk through tough questions.

150 new nonprofits are started every day. But over 25% are considered ineffective. And the problems they attempt to solve remain unsolved... @changebetterorg Click To Tweet


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Episode 35


Speaker 1: This is Using the Whole Whale, a podcast that brings you stories of data and technology in the nonprofit world.


My name is George Weiner, your host and the chief whaler of wholewhale.com. Thanks for joining us.




Speaker 1: We’ve got a fun short interview today with co-founders of changebetter.org, an organization that works with more smaller start up type of nonprofits thinking about how they have structured their impact and business objectives. The co-founders Ellie Zeitland and Amanda Ashton are former coworkers of mine and we have a fun dialog, because they themselves are also a startup. You kind of hear that as they are talking about the day to day and newly getting into it.  I think it’s fun having these kinds of conversations with newer organizations, because frequently I think I at least run into more established, longer running organizations just have different problems. However, there’s a lot of us out there that are starting things up and thinking about how do we manage day to day keep the lights on with incredible oversized impact goals.




Speaker 1: I’m here with Ellie and Amanda from changebetter.org. So a little backstory. We spent some time together while I worked as the CTO of dosomething.org. How are you guys doing? Tell us. What’s going on?


Speaker 2: Yeah, so we left  dosomething. And a few years ago started an organization called Change Better. Work with small startup nonprofits to help them figure out what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how to measure it. Then from there to figure out there to figure out how to make the most impact with the resources that they have.


Speaker 3: Yeah, and I think that Change Better was sort of founded on this philosophy of us working with organizations and people who had really great ideas, but didn’t have the resources to really get them off the ground. So it sort of made us look at the nonprofit sector as a whole, and see that in a lot of cases the sector is very overcrowded and there are a lot of really awesome organizations competing for small resources.  As a result, organizations spend so much time looking for funding and supporters to grow their cause that they are unable to actually focus on their impact on the day to day. And so we started Change Better to help organizations to think more like a business in the sense of making sure that they build all of their strategies and components of their program around impact, which is their bottom line. Businesses build all their models around their bottom line which is profit.


Speaker 1: Yeah it can be a bit more difficult though, because it’s easy to measure the dollars in and out right. Because if you have no dollars, you have no people. But at the impact side it can kind of fall by the wayside and also just be a difficult thing to measure. So, can you talk about an example where you’ve worked with someone to identify this and go through the process?


Speaker 2: Recently, we worked with an organization called Avetum and they work in the mental health space. Specifically they work in High Schools and Middle Schools to talk about what it means to have positive mental health and that mental health is not always a negative thing, but how do you talk about mental health and encourage a safe space where people can let you know when they are having problems and find the resources when they need help.

And so when Avetum came to us, they had been around for about 10 years and had sort of been, you know, doing great things in a really small environment, but came to us with a new idea for a new sort of campaign or program that they were looking to do. It’s called The Talk. And so, we worked with them to help them really develop this program. To make it clear what that impact was going to be and actually set up surveys, key indicators of their impact so that they could really actually measure how their program was being successful and how it was being adopted into those school where it was getting started.  And so, what was really exciting about this process is by doing this, by taking the time to really understand all those components, they were able to really understand that this was actually a new model for their organization. That by tracking their effectiveness, by serving and getting really strong qualitative feedback, they were going to be able to build a new model around this. And so they are right now working to pivot and figure out how to do that.


Speaker 1: So you implemented this pre post survey system along different attributes. Is that what it actually looked like?


Speaker 2: Yeah, exactly. It was a pre and post survey along with one of the things that they do. It’s based around an event and they hold various days of celebration at their various schools. And so then there was not only a pre and post survey, but also a feedback survey after each one of those days to talk about how that message has been spreading.


Speaker 1: So I guess you’ll hold off maybe on the randomized control trials.




Speaker 1: nationwide. It’s kind of doing like hey if you have x we can go this far, but ultimately for the long term, hopefully they saw the impacts of their work and you said they were pivoting which is the ultimate word for we’re going to change a bunch of crap that was working..code.


Speaker 2: Exactly, so. That’s one of our big goals too is to help organizations sort of build leaner programs and focus in on their strengths. So when you say that the nonprofit sector is overcrowded. When you look at it there are 1.5 million nonprofits in the US alone and about three fourths of them have budgets less than a million dollars. And so they are tackling really big issues and they don’t have the resources to do that. So the way that they can become more effective is if they really narrow in on what they are good at and by setting up the metrics and the KPI’s as tied back to them, we can figure out what they are really good at and run in that direction. Sort of get rid of some of the other initiatives that are holding them back.


Speaker 1: That’s interesting. There’s a big sort of move right now in the business world and thought leaders about the 80/ 20 rule. Pareto principle saying that 20 percent of the work that we do is generating 80 percent of the impact. The results. The profits. I see your heads nodding. Can you speak to that all about like oh my gosh yeah we definitely see that. Is that some of that underlying hope that you find what that 20 percent is and especially if you have a budget under a million and then you’re trying to solve the world’s problems, that’s an outsize issue.


Speaker 2: Exactly. So I think a lot of these organizations, because they haven’t been working with data, they have no idea where their 80 percent is. Where that’s coming from. So the first step is to identify that and by setting up these systems, be looking at data and to be measuring what’s working. That’s where we get that sort of discovery is by looking at the data.


Speaker 1: Cool. So if I gave you a magic wand. We’ll call the impact wand…




Speaker 1: … and you could wave it across our 1.5 million nonprofits in the US, what would that wand be doing?


Speaker 2: I think that it would be helping organizations to be helping organizations to collaborate better and frankly it would be killing some organizations.




Speaker 1: It’s a death wand. So more of a Voldemort vibe there.




Speaker 1: Keep going.


Speaker 2: No, no in a positive way. I think one of the things that we see is that there are some larger organizations who have those resources. Those organizations that are over a million dollar budget. For every one of those, there are many smaller organizations who are coming up with new innovative ideas, but don’t have the resources to get them out there. And so what we see in a perfect world is those larger organizations being reinvigorated by those new up and coming ideas that the smaller organizations who don’t have the resources to get them out there.

So we see this really potential awesome marriage of really exciting and innovative ideas going up to those larger platforms of larger organizations and therefore driving impact across every cause space and really being able to help organizations actually solve the problems they set out do. Not just exist to address problems, but really solve true issues.


Speaker 3: And the model that Amanda is describing happens in the for profit world. There are all of these small tech startups that will build a product with the goal of getting bought by Google. Because they have this really innovative idea, but they know that Google has the resources to take it to a whole new level. And yeah, they want to make money.

But it also creates this really efficient system where there’s not 10 different sites that you have to go to to send out your email or to check your calendar, but it’s streamlined. And it makes it great for the user experience. And in the world of non-profits you make it really great for the beneficiaries. If you don’t have to look through 10 different organizations that could potentially offer you great services there’s a one stop shop and these organizations are not competing for resources.


Speaker 1: But isn’t there a role for the creation of the sort of small social impact entrepreneur who ultimately, let’s just be honest, wouldn’t necessarily be able to innovate if they were plugged into the left wing of the Red Cross. And they wouldn’t be coming up with solar powered lamps in the field. So how do you balance that though? There’s still a need for people in their garages doing crazy stuff.


Speaker 2: Absolutely. We work with the small startup innovative groups that are hoping to make an impact. And there is a space for them, I think, if someone is not replicating what they are trying to do. We want to help the next Google’s of tomorrow also grow in the nonprofit world. I think to summarize it’s sort of getting the best ideas and the best approaches to drive real impact out there. And so yeah, there’s absolutely a lot of people who are doing small really awesome things. And so part of that is helping them to really focus in on what they are doing and help them to reach that platform. To get the resources, the support to get there and focus on that on the same time.


Speaker 1: Yeah, and it helps to say like by the way if you focused on the 20 percent that had the majority of your impact earlier on you’re going to to “x”  a lot faster. And by the way, x may be our exit is to this type of organization. Because we are going to figure out what works, and we are going to blow the doors off by partnering there, which probably takes a little bit of massaging sometimes I imagine.  All righty. Last question. We’re going to jump in the hot tub time machine and go back to when you founded this a year ago. What advice would you give yourself?




Speaker 2: So founding a nonprofit is really hard.




Speaker 1: Really?


Speaker 3: Surprise.


Speaker 2: But the bottom line is, when you start a nonprofit, you don’t just have to think about your business model. You have to first, figure out the problem and how you are going to be addressing it. And on top of that you build a business. I think it takes a lot of energy and that’s one of the things that nonprofits actually don’t do very well, is that they have this really great idea. They have a problem that they are trying to solve, but they don’t know the business model for doing that.


And so, that would be my advice for startup nonprofits; is figure out you’re business model, because without the resources you can’t…


Speaker 1: But this is for you guys, so you go back and you tell Ellie that. And it seems like Ellie knew that, but you’re like no. And you’d be like shake one year ago Ellie like no you don’t understand. Really.




Speaker 3: You think you know.


Speaker 2: I guess I would shake her. The thing is nonprofit too is a long game. So you’re working towards getting funding like one, two years down the line and I think there’s a lot of benefit in going into this space because you can be truly focused on impact and you just have to be prepared to play for the long game.


Speaker 3: Yeah, I think that’s the biggest thing, is knowing that every day you’re going to balance the big picture strategy in the day to day. And just when you think you have that perfect balancing act, you start all over again. I don’t know if that’s the most positive advice…


Speaker 1: You just go back and just be honest with past amanda  and past Ellie, I think you’re doing great work. How do people find you, how do people help you?


Speaker 3: Thanks George. People can find us we’re changebetter.org. We’re on twitter and Facebook. Changebetter.org on both of those. And if you’d like to help follow along on your social media and we’ll be passing out opportunities for volunteers and supporters.


Speaker 1: Nice and if you are a small organization just starting up. You are in that I don’t know that tender three quarters of the 1.5 million folks, under a million. Trying to figure out how to make impacts, you might want to give these folks a call.


Speaker 2: Awesome, thanks for having us George.


Speaker 1: Good luck guys.




Speaker 1: I love the vision that Ellie and Amanda have here. Thinking about the sector at large and especially the relationship that smaller nonprofits have and the role that they have to play. I think they are right pointing out the inefficiencies in the market and how as an organization, let’s say I had a startup, and I was creating a new compression algorithm and I want it to be eventually scaled across the entire internet. Well I wouldn’t necessarily have to put that on my back. I could then, once I got it to a point, sell to a Hoolie or a Google.

The point being that there is an opportunity for more innovation than what we see. While at the same time, it is very crowded. There are many similar organizations fighting for a limited share of resources. So it’s, there’s no easy answer here. I think they have a fun approach to this and could help pretty much any strategic nonprofit in the early phases of aligning their business objectives with the real impact they want to have. And like you know what, what’s your exit strategy. It may come down to that sometimes.

What is your exit strategy as a nonprofit? Even if you’re not going enact it in 10 years, your job should go out of business. I know that’s sometimes crazy, but even large organizations have this kind of mantra. If you look at the Michael J Fox foundation and their work to end Parkinsons. They are literally like in their mission statement, we want to go out of business.

We don’t want to be here. We want to put ourselves out of business. We want to rid the world of this disease. That’s our endgame. And so that’s definitely one of the key ingredients I think you’ll find in successful, well-structured organizations that have both this larger vision but a very practical day to day on how do we get our job done. We’ll have resources for this podcast as always this is episode number 35 on our site. Wholewhale.com/podcasts. Thanks for joining us.




This has been Using the Whole Whale. For more resources on today’s show, please visit wholewhale.com/podcast and consider following us on twitter @whole whale and thanks for joining us.