In Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good, author Ann Mei Chang argues that mission-driven organizations can—and should—use the strategies and tactics driving innovation in Silicon Valley. Susan Reichle, IYF’s recently appointed CEO, agrees. “If we don’t push the envelope and change how we operate,” she says, “we won’t be able to achieve the deepest impact—and that’s what it’s all about.” 

During a recent visit to the IYF offices, Chang shared insights about why changing the business-as-usual mindset in the social development sector is critical, challenging, and—with the right leadership and buy-in—achievable. Here are her answers to five overarching questions:

Innovation is a popular buzzword, but what does it really mean?

Innovation is the path, while impact is the destination. It’s also important to understand that innovation is not about flashy technology or the newest whiz-bang gizmo. Innovation is not nearly so sexy. It’s a long slog of testing, iterating, failing, scraping yourself off the ground, getting up and trying again—over and over.

Why is innovation important in the social development sector? 

We’re putting time, money, and resources into solving the world’s hardest most entrenched problems. But we’re not moving the needle fast enough. Think about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Only three years in, we already know we’re not on a trajectory to reach them by 2030, because every year there’s a 3 trillion-dollar funding gap. We’re not going to find that money. Instead, we need to focus on getting more bang for the buck. That’s where innovation comes in.

Why is innovation difficult for mission-driven organizations? 

I’ve met so many nonprofit leaders who struggle with things like restrictive funding, with the fact that measuring impact can be incredibly difficult and may take years to fully realize, and with the feeling that experimentation seems irresponsible when working with the world’s most vulnerable populations. These are just a few of the reasons that make innovation much more complicated in the social sector. That’s why I wrote the book.

What can mission-driven organizations do to encourage innovation? 

In the NGO world, we tend to plan [our interventions, programs, etc.] based on constraints. We need to shift this mindset to one where we think bigger and plan based on real need. Also, [in the NGO world] we spend a lot of time planning, and years can pass before a program ever hits the ground. Doing this builds up a lot of risk—when we fail, we fail big. Instead, we need to start smaller and get the program into the world quicker so we can test our assumptions, fail smaller, learn and iterate faster. Then, when we get it right, double down. These principles—think big, start small, relentlessly seek impact—are at the core of what I mean by Lean Impact. 

How can an organization shift towards a mindset of lean impact? 

It starts with re-framing goals at every level of the organization, from business-as-usual goals to more audacious stretch goals, where you have no idea how you’ll get there. Then, you need to create incentives that reward people for aiming high and taking smart risks. Too often in the world of global development we worry about offending each other—instead, we need to hold people and the organization accountable. In my experience, when a more traditional organization goes through this transformation, it often happens when a new leader comes in who brings a fresh perspective. I’ve never seen it happen without disruption, because it makes people uncomfortable, but you come out the other side having created a new culture.