How non-profits can apply the lean startup methodology

Non-profits, much like startups, operate with limited resources and face uncertainty. By adopting the lean startup methodology, they can validate their interventions, ensuring they address genuine community needs.

How non-profits can apply the lean startup methodology

Sunday September 24, 2023,

5 min Read

Since its publication over a decade ago, the book, The Lean Startup still regularly features in the list of books that startup founders should read. The most famous examples from the book focus on technology companies. This has led to the perception that it may be most relevant for those looking to set up one of India's next unicorns.

However, many of the lessons from the book can be relevant for social entrepreneurs. In my entrepreneurial journey as the founder of a non-profit, I have found the lessons from the book to be relevant and effective.

Here are three ways that the Lean Startup methodology can apply to social entrepreneurs:

Create the minimum viable fntervention

Whether you lead a large social enterprise or a large one, there are always new ideas and initiatives you have to implement to impact the communities you serve. The Lean Startup's concept of a Minimum Viable Product discusses launching a product with the minimum features required to satisfy early customers. For non-profits, this could translate into a minimum viable intervention. Before scaling, test the intervention on a smaller group, gather feedback, and iterate to ensure maximum efficacy.

In my case, our organisation provides a toolkit to schools containing games and activities that help children learn about nutrition. The goal is to nudge them to solve problems related to malnutrition in their schools and communities. Since its inception, we have prototyped several versions of the toolkit. Our first prototype was simply a cardboard box covered with printouts of our organisation and partners' logos. It contained spiral-bound activity manuals and games assembled with paper, glue and tape.

We showed it to various stakeholders to assess their interest in partnering with us to roll out this toolkit with schools. We tested the games with small groups of children to evaluate their engagement with the toolkit's components. Once we got a positive response, we started working on the toolkit that we could give to schools for our pilot project. The toolkit has since been used in over 250 schools and has undergone several revisions.


If a particular approach isn’t yielding the desired results, non-profits should be agile and ready to pivot, reshaping their strategy based on insights gathered from the ground. The advantage of the Lean Startup methodology is that it pushes you not to be too attached to your ideas. Sometimes we spend months developing a programme, and it just doesn't work once implemented.

This can be an opportunity to re-visit one's assumptions. Why isn’t the programme effective? Is it the core idea, the implementation method, the partnerships or something else? The solution could require a small change or an overhaul of the programme. Either way, one could unlock an insight. During the pandemic, when schools were shut, we had to develop online versions of games from our toolkit quickly.

We had been thinking about digitising our toolkit before the pandemic, but multiple conversations with partners and community members informed us that access to smartphones, tablets or laptops was low in semi-rural areas. These devices were understandably seen as a luxury item. With the pandemic, when learning moved online, these same devices were transformed into a necessity, as they maintained access to schools via e-learning.

A study in 2021 found that 64 per cent of all households with enrolled school-age children in India had Internet access. There was now a wider audience for the digital version of our toolkit. Our team used tools like Wordwall and BookWidgets to create online games based on our toolkit. The feedback and engagement from students have given us insights into how to scale up our work on digitising our content.

Focus on actionable metrics

Just as businesses measure success with actionable metrics, non-profits must identify and track metrics that reflect their impact, allowing them to make data-driven decisions and optimise their efforts. The Lean Startup methodology is focused on the Build-Measure-Learn loop. Putting measurement at the centre implies that we can only learn if we have defined what success looks like and measured ourselves against it.

Non-profits usually define success, such as how many people are reached by the intervention and what change results due to the intervention. This needs to be drilled down further into three-five metrics that can measure this. For example, when I talk about our work in nutrition, it is often perceived as being focused solely on changing dietary choices. However, one of the key metrics for us regarding impact is increasing the percentage of children that wash their hands with soap.

This is because handwashing with soap is a critical determinant for achieving and maintaining good nutrition. When our impact surveys showed that the percentage of children washing their hands with soap was increasing after our intervention, but by less than we expected, we added more engaging content to our toolkit focusing on this topic. We continue to evaluate whether this content is achieving its desired results.

Non-profits, much like startups, operate with limited resources and face uncertainty. By adopting the lean startup methodology, they can validate their interventions, ensuring they address genuine community needs.

The emphasis on actionable metrics and adaptability enables non-profits to be more impactful and responsive. It also fosters a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Ultimately, the lean startup methodology provides a roadmap for non-profits to achieve their mission efficiently and effectively.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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