Inspiration

Our learnings from interviewing 25 non-profits of all sizes

Customer Research Process & Overview


Over the course of the last 3 months, PublicSquare undertook an exercise to conduct interviews with roughly 25 unique non profit organizations based out of Canada to understand the major challenges that they face in hitting their goals.


Organizations of all sizes from grassroots to large were interviewed. We will define organization size as grassroots (1-2 people), small (3-10 people), medium (11-30 people), and large (> 30 people). Surprisingly, we had a pretty even split of organizations from all the four categories. 


We also spoke to organizations working on a range of different challenges such as human rights & indigenous affairs, environmental concerns, political and socio-economic issues.


In order to make this report as instructive as possible, we will first talk about the common challenges that were observed across all organization types and sizes. Then we’ll compare how these challenges change given the level of maturity and size of the organization. Finally, we’ll take a look at what investments PublicSquare is making to bring us closer to our mission of helping non-profits and cause-based organizations succeed!

Common Challenges Across All Organization Sizes


Before starting the customer research exercise, we had done our own independent research to understand what are the common functions in operating a successful non-profit and had used those functions as a guide to inform our interview process. 


  1. Vision & goal setting
  2. Strategic planning
  3. Grant writing / proposal writing
  4. Fundraising 
  5. Budgeting
  6. Community engagement 
  7. Volunteer management 
  8. Team management
  9. Team Resourcing
  10. Impact Measurement
  11. Board reporting & management


Although many of these functions actually take place in parallel, it can be assumed that there needs to be some level of vision & goal setting at the beginning followed by fundraising and then execution on whatever plans were drawn up during the strategic planning phase.


As we interviewed our customers, we asked them to describe their current challenges in context of these functions and it was very interesting to see which patterns rose to the surface across the diverse groups of organizations that we spoke with.


The functions highlighted below tend to be the ones which non-profit organizations seemed to face their greatest challenges with. They are also “higher leverage” functions -- this means that an investment in improving the high leverage function leads to relatively higher return on investment compared to the other functions.


  1. Vision & goal setting
  2. Strategic planning
  3. Grant writing / proposal writing
  4. Fundraising 
  5. Budgeting
  6. Community & stakeholder engagement 
  7. Volunteer management 
  8. Team management
  9. Team Resourcing
  10. Impact Measurement
  11. Board reporting & management

“...an investment in improving the high leverage function leads to relatively higher return on investment compared to the other functions.”

We’ll now illustrate what specific problems came to the surface in each of the above highlighted categories:

Strategic Planning 


  1. No Blueprint: Organizations felt that there was generally a lack of resources or access to a “blueprint” on how to get started. They had these amazing ideas and goals but they did not see a clear path forward on how to translate that into execution strategy.


  1. Lack of Community: Organizations felt that they were lacking access to a community of people they could ask questions for guidance on how to go about creating an execution strategy and also how to go about the day-to-day management operations.


  1. Too Many Priorities: Because organizations generally had multiple stakeholders (board, donors, target users, other supporters) to manage, it was unclear to them what key performance indicators (KPIs) they should measure to understand if they were getting closer to meeting their goals.


Fundraising


  1. Unclear Funding Supply: Newer organizations have a pretty tough time identifying the right sources of funding that are accessible to them. It seems that it is pretty tough to comb through what sources are even available for a given problem and once sources are found, it is also unclear what the requirements are to become eligible for the same funding. As a result, this tends to be a super long and drawn out process.


  1. Ineligible for Regular Funding: Of course, there are also the instances that even after putting in the time to comb through all the available funding sources and checking eligibility, it becomes clear that there might not be anything for which their organization qualifies for. In this case, the organization needs to figure out other ways to build capital.


  1. Heavy Reliance on Few Donors: In the case where organizations want to open up their fundraising strategy and start relying on the community more than a select group of funders / donors, they lack easy online tools to bring people together and raise funds. The tools definitely exist but they are not being heavily used right now because the user experience is not quite perfect yet. As the nonprofit world is used to methods such as in-person galas, fundraisers, grants, etc. to raise capital, there is still a long way to go for traditional online fundraising tools to catch up and come close to that in-person experience.


  1. Inconsistent Funding Stream: And lastly, any enterprise requires some level of certainty to make a medium to long term strategy and apply consistency to hitting their goals. Many of the organizations that we spoke to however, felt that it was often tough to make very long term goals because they were not sure if they would have funding for a specific project or cause further down the line.



 Community & Stakeholder Engagement


  1. Inexperience with Digital: With the shift to everything digital during the pandemic, organizations have done their best to adjust and carry forth their outreach strategies online. However, many organizations still lack the skills & experience to effectively communicate with their community & stakeholders online.


  1. Online Tools Too Complex: There is an overwhelming amount of information and tools out there on how to build your digital presence and followers. However, most of the tools and strategies are quite difficult to use leaving organizations to follow a simple email & basic social media strategy.


  1. Inexperience with Viral Marketing: Many causes and campaigns can be significantly accelerated if certain high leverage strategies that are specific to the digital world are applied. Many small organizations do not have the experience to use influencers, digital ads, and other novel approaches to supercharge their campaigns.



Impact Measurement


  1. Inadequate KPI Tracking: Due to the previously mentioned challenge of not knowing which key performance indicators (KPIs) to track, there is inadequate tracking of KPIs which makes it difficult to assess whether things are on the right course, plan for the future, and ask for more resources.

  2. Inadequate Tracking of KPI Changes: There is Inadequate understanding of how key metrics are changing over time and what can be learnt from observing them resulting in potentially continuing to invest in programs and ideas which may not actually be aligned with organization's vision & goals.



Progression of Challenges by Organization Size

As you saw above,  there are quite a number of meaty challenges found in those four high leverage functional areas. However, not every organization experiences them equally. We actually found that as an organization grows larger in size and maturity certain challenges diminish. Whereas all these challenges are most pronounced when starting off as a grassroots organization --  the barrier to entry and success is high!

“...as an organization grows larger in size and maturity certain challenges diminish.”

We’ll now go through a table which shows how these problems diminish as the organization grows larger in size and maturity:

Changes in Challenges as an Organization Matures




Potential Gaps in the Market & Opportunities

As shown in the tables above, there is a clear gap in the market for certain functions and although there are some alternatives out there to help bridge those gaps, there is no clear winner that has stood out to the organizations we spoke to.

As a natural response to this, PublicSquare brainstormed a set of solutions to potentially tackle some of the challenges which came up. You can see the results of our brainstorming exercise below:

Potential Solutions for Key Challenge Areas


The customer research interviews and our subsequent brainstorming exercise was a deeply informative process and we also had a lot of fun ideating with the organizations we spoke to. 


PublicSquare’s Experiments

We assessed all the options above against a rough ICE assessment (impact, confidence, and ease) and landed on 3 problem areas and solutions that we would like to help support. We have worked quickly to implement our learnings and already have an initial proof of concept out in the market for the 3 key ideas that we chose. Check them out below: 

“We assessed all the options above against a rough ICE assessment (impact, confidence, and ease) and landed on 3 problem areas and solutions...”

Digital Consulting

Offer digital marketing consulting & campaign execution services that are custom built for each advocacy group, non-profit or cause.

https://www.publicsquare.io/

SocialCircle

Offer a product/service that helps organizations quickly build their community & followers by analyzing their existing network, defining a target person, and finding similar leads for them that are highly likely to convert.

https://www.publicsquare.io/socialcircle

DonorPlay

Create a gamified fundraising platform to create an atmosphere of fun and “high engagement” leading to more donations.

https://www.publicsquare.io/donorplay


Leave Us Your Thoughts!


Have any feedback to share with us? We would love to hear from you and we’re still learning and are excited to include as many people as we can on our journey. Reach out to us at hello@publicsquare.io to get in touch with us. See you on the other side :)


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