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HEARTBEAT – An Approach for Transforming Smaller Nonprofits

Monday, June 25, 2018
Guest Writers
Nonprofit Technology
Adam Kruszynski
A lit sparkler is lighting up the palm of a hand in nighttime.

I find social events really awkward. I always get asked what I do for a living and I can never give a straight answer. For the last 20+ years, I’ve helped various companies and organizations transform. Whether it’s “Digital Transformation”, “Customer-Centric Transformation”, or “LEAN Agile Transformation”… in today’s rapidly changing market, all organizations must evolve to survive and thrive. Below, I would like to share with you an approach called HEARTBEAT that I designed to help smaller nonprofits evolve. 

Perhaps the best place to start is the name HEARTBEAT. Why this name? Because rhythm is the core characteristic of this approach and our HEARTBEAT is the core rhythm of our lives. There are other natural cadences like sunsets and seasons, as well as artificial cadences like a weekend or a minute, but a heartbeat represents something profound. It’s the quintessential act of living. It reduces the clutter of our noisy existence to what is really… truly… unequivocally… critical. Without it, we cease to exist.

The Need to Transform

Smaller nonprofits experience increasing challenges. According to Imagine Canada’s 2014 Sector Monitor:

“… the percentage of leaders of charities under high levels of stress strongly agreeing their charity is experiencing increasing demand has risen to 55% from a low of 43% in mid-2011.”

This stress was much higher with smaller nonprofits (fewer than 10 staff and revenue under $500K - Table 1). 

Sector stakeholders should be on the lookout for emergent challenges and adaptive strategies related to increased demand. In addition, we must continue to be particularly vigilant regarding the small and medium-sized organizations that are consistently more likely to report higher levels of organizational stress. In terms of number of organizations, these charities make up the bulk of the sector and challenges there will inevitably have effects throughout the charitable ecosystem.

Large nonprofits often have budgets big enough to support dedicated organizational transformation efforts and staff. But what about smaller nonprofits? How can they, in spite of their limitations, transform to meet increasing demands, increasing operating costs, and rapidly evolving donors? First, understand and accept that innovation is the currency of your transformation.

This is where HEARTBEAT comes in. You can think of it as a micro-framework based primarily on LEAN principles [#2] and Edward Deming’s [#3] productivity theories (especially PDCA).

How Does Heartbeat Work?

Just like five fingers on your hand, HEARTBEAT has five simple steps repeated in a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly cadence. Each activity (finger) should be short and focused.

Hand drawing with words associated with each finger, which signifies the order in which the words should be contemplated. Purpose, simplify, explore, execute, share & adapt. "Together" is written on the palm.

1. Purpose

Remember and celebrate the very heart and purpose of your nonprofit. How do you impact your benefactors, donors, and even staff? Use this purpose to anchor your steps! Your purpose is the best lens of discernment when looking at conflicting and overwhelming priorities. Watch Rick Warren’s TED 2006 presentation “A life of purpose” for a unique perspective on this.

2. Simplify

Create more capacity (time and money) by removing the work that’s creating the least value. Simplify and cut the scope of what you do. Consciously accept that loss and let it go. Creating this capacity is necessary to pivot and transform. If you cannot simplify, you cannot transform. Watch Yves Morieux TED 2013 presentation for insights on this.

3. Explore

When we plan, we usually focus on the things we already know. But when we explore, we accept that the only way we can find and achieve a great solution is by testing, learning, and pivoting. Explore. Prototype. Don’t wait. The cost of delaying is often greater than the cost of making mistakes. And don’t try to find a perfect solution. You will learn more by exploring than you will by creating hypothetical perfect plans. Watch Tom Wujec’s TED 2010 presentation for a cool perspective on this.

4. Execute

This part is self-explanatory. Remember that it’s OK if you’re doing something for the first time. Try new things and approaches you’ve never tried before. If you fail, admit it, learn from it, pivot, and try again. These are all learning opportunities. The cyclical nature of this approach will allow you to evolve your plan and manage risks. Watch JK Rowling’s 2008 Harvard TED presentation on the benefits of failure.

5. Share & Adapt

The cycle ends with shared reflection. Failures in action are recognized as successes in learning. True impact is weighed as more important than our attachment to specific ideas because in the end, fulfilling the purpose of your organization is at the heart. We share lessons learned transparently, relentlessly let go of failed ideas, then pivot and evolve them. Watch Mark Grove’s video on how to run this type of retrospective session.

Besides the HEARTBEAT cadence of these events, there is another key characteristic - collaboration. Just like your five fingers are connected to each other and they work together to get things done, the same principle applies here. All these steps are meant to be done collaboratively. Exploration and transformation is fuelled by collaboration and communication in cross-functional teams. To learn about the power of collaboration, watch Clay Shirky’s TED 2005 “Institutions vs Collaboration” presentation or Howard Rheingold TED 2005 “The new power of collaboration” presentation.

Is That It?

Yes. The strength of this approach comes from its simplicity. It is powerful and adaptable, especially for smaller nonprofits. It is the cadence of HEARTBEAT and your collaborative spirit, not the complexity of the framework, that will make you successful… even against your greatest transformation challenges.

And remember as you embark on this journey… Failures in action are recognized as successes in learning.

Just like Finger #5 in Heartbeat, I would love for you to provide feedback. Does this approach make sense? Did you try it? How can it be improved? Join in the discussion below.


About the Author

Adam Kruszynski

Adam Kruszynski is Director of Digital Transformation at World Vision Canada. A passionate thought provoking change agent, he believes the best way to evolve organizations is by evolving their people. He has 20+ years experience in digital marketing, technology, and data-driven strategy with 12+ of these years leading various digital and technology transformations. He is also an open closet writer, an entertaining speaker, an award-winning digital pioneer, a digital strategist, an agilist servant leader, and a life-time serial volunteer. 

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

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