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Apr 25th, 2023

Our 3 Biggest Insights from Investing in Innovation

Here’s what we’ve learned.

Betsy Enriquez
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After over a decade of honing our volunteering platform, we decided it was time to dedicate capacity and resources towards new innovation projects.

In 2022, we created a strategy and innovation function charged with:

  • Collecting ideas
  • Doing extensive research
  • Incubating ideas with test groups
  • Bringing innovative products and services to market

Our goal is to have these new products and services help us better serve nonprofits and drive impact in the sector.

Initially, the team collected ideas through one on one meetings, focus groups, and surveys. The main question was: in what ways could Catchafire better serve and support you and the nonprofit sector? Ideas were put through a rigorous funnel that identified the business case and how to test it, created benchmarks, and executed the tests. Ideas that made it through the funnel were then developed into minimum viable products (MVPs) to test in the market. Ideas that didn’t make it through the funnel were modified and put back through the funnel, or put into a ‘graveyard’ of tested ideas that didn’t pan out.

The result: three big insights and three promising innovations.

Three Biggest Insights

  1. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work remains a top need in the nonprofit sector, yet cost is the largest barrier for nonprofits seeking DEI support.
  2. While nonprofit leaders request more opportunities to connect with others and develop their leadership skills, finding the time to actually do these activities remains a challenge.
  3. Being able to ‘pivot’ is key while innovating: you may quickly realize what you thought was going to work won’t, and being able to be agile and change directions based on research and feedback is key to success.

Three Innovations Spearheaded by Catchafire

1. Nonprofit DEI Readiness

With a nationwide focus on DEI efforts in 2020, we fielded an increase of requests from nonprofits for help on DEI-related projects. We knew that adding DEI projects to our platform as is wasn’t something we wanted to do. DEI work is highly personalized and unique and is often led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) professionals. We wanted to ensure professionals are being paid for the work they are doing in this complex space.

We pursued research funding from one of our partners to see if there was a way in which we could help nonprofits, while also paying DEI professionals for this work. We embarked on months of research, which included input from our nonprofit and foundation partners and DEI consultants.

Our rigorous research resulted in the following conclusions:

  • DEI means different things to different people.
  • Cost is the major limitation to gaining DEI support.
  • Each organization’s motivation for seeking DEI support was unique - ranging from HR practices to professional development to better serving their communities.
  • When choosing a consultant, folks look most for a provider that provides actionable next steps, has a shared identity with their community members, and has knowledge of the nonprofit space.

Considering the complexities of all aspects of engaging a DEI consultant - from identifying the needs, sourcing and finding a consultant who is the best fit for these needs, and doing the work itself - Catchafire concluded that there isn’t an optimal way to add a paid DEI consultant offering to our platform.

The idea didn’t end there. There could still be a powerful path for Catchafire and volunteers on the platform to prepare nonprofits for a paid DEI consultant engagement. One thing we heard over and over from both nonprofits and DEI consultants alike, was that in order to ‘get the most’ out of your DEI consultant experience, you need to come in prepared and ready for the work ahead. Many of Catchafire’s current project offerings can help a nonprofit prepare for working with a DEI consultant. For example, ensuring a nonprofit’s staffing plan is up-to-date before engaging a DEI consultant in how to develop more inclusive and low-bias hiring practices.

In order to meet this need, we have created a DEI Readiness Bundle aimed at preparing nonprofits to engage with a DEI consultant, and have edited the projects and calls to include key elements that we heard from consultants as must-haves before engaging with a consultant. While the outcome of this exploration pivoted from our initial idea, it allowed us to gather critical information and adjust our project bundles accordingly to support nonprofits embarking on this work.

2. Board Recruitment Tool

Nonprofits need support finding board members who serve as crucial advocates for an organization and its mission. The process of finding the right board member can be time consuming, and it is difficult to find individuals who are the right fit. Over the years, we have seen volunteers join the boards of nonprofits after they met on Catchafire. By recruiting volunteers who they’ve already worked with, nonprofits know they’re a good fit for their needs and eager for the cause. Yet we were not actively encouraging this or able to track it since it happened organically and often off the platform.

We did research with our users, and found that:

  • Volunteers are very interested in finding board positions.
  • Nonprofits need more qualified and committed board members.
  • Accountability and commitment is the number one need nonprofits have for board members.
  • Successful board members often volunteered for the organizations first, before becoming board members.
  • The majority of volunteers on Catchafire are interested in finding board positions and are open to remote board service.

Our research confirmed our suspicion that adding board matching to the platform would be beneficial to both volunteers and nonprofits. We set out to leverage our platform and existing nonprofit and volunteer communities to more intentionally help nonprofits find board members and help professionals find board service opportunities—and do it at scale. We developed a concept for a solution with three parts: matching; training and education; and reporting.

We focused on the first aspect - the matching - and built a solution that’s now ready for deployment. This solution allows nonprofits and volunteers to indicate they are recruiting for board members or interested in board service. Once a volunteer and nonprofit connect on an existing project or call, we flag that it could be a potential board match as well, and set them up to have a conversation about board opportunities. The majority of volunteers on Catchafire are interested in finding board positions and are open to remote board service.

“We started with a consultation and ended up with a brand-new website (designed by me) and a solid marketing strategy - not to mention a few software and ads grants! DeAnna [the founder/CEO] was so wonderful to work with that when she asked me to join their board; I said, "Of Course!" This nonprofit is unique, and its work with our youth is unheard of!” - Lina R., Volunteer

Watch our product demo here. With our Board Recruitment feature, nonprofits can develop and build stronger boards, which are a critical element in financially sound, stable, and sustainable organizations that eventually become grant-ready. We plan to use 2023 to deploy this product. We will collect user data and feedback to improve upon it and potentially build out additional training and reporting capabilities.

3. BIPOC Leadership Group

Catchafire’s current products and services are focused on connecting nonprofits to volunteers who can help them on a variety of projects; however, we have few services and programs that intentionally connect nonprofits to each other. We are uniquely positioned to create such an offering because of our robust virtual network of over 10,000 nonprofits.

Most importantly, our nonprofits have spoken. They want more opportunities to connect with one another, build community, share success stories, share challenges, and co-create solutions.

In the United States, only 25% of all nonprofit executive directors are BIPOC. At Catchafire, 61% of nonprofits have BIPOC leadership and 31% are exclusively Black-led. We surveyed BIPOC leaders already engaged on Catchafire’s platform to learn more and found that 92% of survey respondents are looking for ways to connect with other nonprofit leaders, and 78% are wanting to build their professional networks and learn from experts in the field.

In response, we launched a BIPOC leadership group with the goal of creating a space for BIPOC nonprofit leaders to lead, grow, and find support within a community of similar leadership roles. The group meets twice a month, and session topics are designed based on community needs. In these sessions, BIPOC grantees receive first-hand knowledge and advice from expert hosts and speakers with extensive nonprofit experience. Leaders are equipped with instant takeaways they can apply to their organizations, while enjoying an environment with peer-to-peer learning, coaching, and other resources.

The average rating for the sessions has been 4.9/5, and 87.5% of BIPOC leadership group attendees report an increased confidence in nonprofit leadership skills.

"Being a leader in a nonprofit can be very isolating. When a problem occurs, you need to not absorb the problem and put it solely on your shoulders; you will want to work through it with a community of people. Our missions may be different but our communities are the same. We can all come together, even if we’re in different places, and work on creative innovative solutions together, that’s why this group was created." - BIPOC Leadership Group Member

“Thank you for giving us this space to talk about our needs, challenges, and what we can do. I remember what it is like to be in leadership and it is very lonely and isolating and there’s very few people we can trust.” - BIPOC Leadership Group Member

How Can the Industry Help?

Grantmakers have an opportunity to contribute to the success of the sector writ large by investing in cutting edge innovations and technologies that will drive impact for nonprofits. Yet grantmakers are often hesitant to invest in new ‘unproven’ things, as there is always the potential for failure. But the upside is so bright - and grantmakers do have the ability to lean into risk because of the immense potential that investments have to move our sector forward. Corporations investing in their CSR programming have already seen the results; employees are using their skills and talent to give back, while strengthening nonprofits and communities.

Get Involved with Catchafire

If you’re a grantmaker interested in innovations that fuel and support the nonprofit sector, let’s connect. Email [email protected].

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