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Does “nonprofit innovation” sound like an oxymoron?

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Organizations like CoachArt are a part of a new wave of impact innovation coming to the nonprofit sector.

What are the most innovative companies of our time?

If you’re thinking of a rolling list of the tech giants like Google, Meta, Amazon, et al, you’re not alone. What’s impressive, many of these companies have been founded within the last two(ish) decades. 

The late 90s and early 00s ushered in a new dawning of technology. We were in the midst of riding the .com wave. The internet was a new sensation that many thought would just be a resource for research papers and academia. 

Those who saw the potential thrived as others fell to the wayside. 

But charities in the 90s were decades behind–adopting exploitative fundraising practices, where poverty and those suffering from it entered our living rooms through primetime TV commercials. 

Nonprofits didn’t envision a place for themselves in the tech boom. Try imagining the same list of innovative nonprofits and your brain may buzz with crickets and a few familiar big-name organizations. 

Innovation and charity haven’t always been synonymous. But now, nearly 30 years after the .com era nonprofit leaders are waking up to the potential. Impact innovation is here, and nonprofits aren’t sitting idly by this time. 

Traditional isn't working for everybody

The ‘traditional’ fundraising and marketing strategies of nonprofits historically featured guilt-driven appeals and slanted statistics that often leave people feeling emotionally manipulated.

We’re looking at you, Sarah McLachlan.

Those strategies worked then. Most people want to help and support causes they care about. And when their heartstrings are manipulated, their wallets open. 

And while this may still work as a fundraising strategy, it’s not making huge, systemic impacts on the future of the nonprofit sector or the impact we make. You don’t have to look far to see the regions being exploited on TV in the 90s are still in dire need of support. The system raised funds, but it didn’t make the world better, per se. 

Moving from "non-profit" to "for-impact."

In order to move towards a more innovative nonprofit sector, we have to establish the technological infrastructure and scalable systems necessary to harness that same creative energy of the world’s leading innovative companies.

But doing so will require key strategies that nurture such innovation: 

  • Time. Nonprofit leaders and their funders need to understand that building scalable solutions requires time, time that on paper may look like “overhead,” but is building more sustainable infrastructure.

  • Talent. We need a skilled workforce and/or partners that can build infrastructure in a secure and robust way. 

  • Treasure. Aka funding. Nonprofits will need the appropriate funding to drive innovation, and hire and retain talent to deliver lasting impact. 

The goal is to move away from the “no profit” mentality and into one with a focus “for impact.” This shift in mindset can open new ideas and innovation never before tapped into by the nonprofit sector. The next 20 years, we’ll undoubtedly see more charity innovation. 

CoachArt as a case study

Zander Lurie founded CoachArt, in honor of his dad, a cardiac surgeon who recognized the need for long-term enrichment amongst kids impacted by chronic illness.

Due to medical advances, children were now being discharged from the hospital earlier than ever before. But this success saw unintended consequences, they and their families were losing access to the support programs these hospitals offered. 

Inspired by the model introduced by eBay, which created a platform to connect interested parties, Zander and his lifelong friend Leah Bernthal envisioned an organization that would use technology to connect families impacted by childhood chronic illness with volunteers who could provide coaching in arts or athletics in the comfort of the child’s own home.

Creating opportunity

The first half of Zander’s vision came to life in 2001, when CoachArt began serving outpatient children discharged from the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. Kids were now given an opportunity to discover talents they didn’t know existed. 

Kids like Alberto. 

Alberto’s illness led to partial paralysis in his hands and discouraged him from learning how to play the instrument he loved listening to; the piano. With the help of his CoachArt coach Jordan, Alberto mastered the piano and was quickly identified as a burgeoning prodigy. 

Alberto would go on to practice at the prestigious Colburn School of Music in Los Angeles before being accepted to Stanford where he currently studies Computer Science.

Because of CoachArt’s innovative approach, Alberto’s life was positively impacted. 

Building scalable solutions

Even though Alberto’s story was happening throughout the community, CoachArt wasn’t able to scale our impact. Only half of Zander and Leah’s vision became a reality. By connecting volunteer instructors with families manually, every 8 hours of lessons required 7 hours of staff time. 

In 2018 CoachArt took the time, talent, and funds to build an app that reduced match time from 7 hours to 7 minutes–making our programs accessible to kids impacted by chronic illness throughout the nation, not just in the Los Angeles area. 

Despite this accomplishment, there’s still a lot of transformation that CoachArt needs to go through to achieve our ultimate goal.

How to sustain scalable innovation

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