business model canvas for social good

The first time I saw the business model canvas, I dismissed it.  But using it in a very specific way can reveal the often sidestepped user research, unvalidated ideas, and the focused slicing needed for social projects and nonprofits notorious for trying to take on too much.

The fact that the ubiquitous business model canvas was created for businesses interested in generating revenue embedded in me an immediate allergic reaction when I was asked to apply it to socio-cultural projects.

Revenue-generation would never be an end goal for mission-driven organizations.  The canvas seemed disrespectful of the complexity of issues like poverty, environment, or community by trying to simplify them into boxes.  From a design standpoint, this seemed like a lame attempt to exercise visual-thinking, yet there were still only words – not visuals – involved, just grouped and rearranged into lists and boxes.  This was misleading even for businesses.  No matter how many nonprofit/mission-driven versions I saw (like this template, this explanation, or this version), the way they explained each block in depth still seemed too simplistic.

Most frustrating was that the canvas made it too easy to justify what your organization was already doing.  It took me a while to realize that this is what most explanations lacked: a way to be self-critical – the deliberateness needed to truly improve.

So this is the key – if you use it to question everything about your process, you can discover some major holes in your strategy.  You need to use the canvas with the intention of poking holes in your own process.  Not to justify your existing state.

With higher stakes, nonprofits and mission-driven projects need constructive criticism.  They need to identify the issues, what’s being done ineffectively, and to highlight the fact that the scope being tackled is too wide given the amount of resources.  You don’t need to fill the canvas out to realize that every social good project suffers from these problems – especially nonprofits strapped for funding.

The magic of the canvas lies in how it reveals the target demographic.  Being honest and doing rigorous research on the beneficiaries of your mission is what most nonprofits skip when establishing themselves.  This is where User Experience Research & Design can really make its place in the nonprofit world.

The initiatives can’t be everything for all people – there are specific “users” that should benefit from them.  And scrutinizing the Key Activities, as termed by the canvas, can reveal whether your initiatives/solutions were designed internally or by understanding the user’s behaviors and needs through user research.  Most nonprofits will find their initiatives are based on initial assumptions about users that were never validated.  While some initiatives may be informed by policy research, this type of research almost never includes user research methods such as interviews or behavioral investigations.  Most of it is based on geographical data or statistical trends.

The ideas/strategies themselves need to be validated as well.  In other words, sometimes the form that programs take are too broad to be effective.  It may be the wrong audience entirely.  Without researching the beneficiary, a blanket strategy is implemented without efficiency.  With limited resources, this is critical for programmatic and organizational sustainability.  Initial ideas take on a form that should be validated, even if it’s 25 years down the road.

Going beyond just the surface value that a program brings to beneficiaries is tricky.   We need to find out details like the relationship between the beneficiary and the value, current behavior and stigmas, and how value might be augmented or diminished by the delivery system or format.

And given I believe that pure metrics are an unreliable way to measure social impact, defining “one metric that matters” can be even more useful than actually measuring it.  While tracking clicks to a website or backers for a campaign might be tempting, it’s worth defining a value of some kind.  Examples may include hyperlocal relationships created, striving for low turnover, a lower frequency of late-night deadlines, or not needing to react to every critical social media comment your team receives.  These are signs of a healthy organization or program.

If the business model canvas is applied in a self-critical manner, mission-driven organizations and initiatives can truly harness their energy for significant impact rather than face burnout.

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