At Personal Democracy Forum last week, I saw a very interesting panel titled “The Lean Startup Model for Politics” (check out Jackie Mahandra’s cool visual notes here). I was a little amused that the whole panel was premised on an article I’d read in last month’s Wired magazine, “Upstart Eric Ries Has the Stage and the Crowd Is Going Wild.” Then I was intrigued. Then I was concerned.
Eric Ries is the latest Silicon Valley Guru. His new book, The Lean Startup, is a hit with both venture capitalists and startup managers. It teaches the differences between “vanity metrics” and “actionable metrics,” preaches about “minimum viable products” that allow a company to test market demands early, argues for “iterative” productive development and for “pivoting” when a product isn’t working out.
There’s a lot to like in these concepts. I’ve written previously about the difficulty of measuring success in online campaigning. Most of the easily accessible metrics (facebook “likes,” twitter followers, petition signatures) provide only a weak signal of whether or not you’re achieving your campaign goals. Advocacy campaigns are about applying pressure to specific targets in order to convince them to do something that they would not otherwise do. Tactics that garner a lot of facebook “likes” are not always the same tactics that provide leverage on your targeted decision-maker. That sounds an awful lot like Ries’s distinction between “vanity” and “actionable” metrics.
Likewise, the recent success of Change.org came after several previous failures. Ben Rattray (Change.org’s founder and CEO) was on the panel and discussed their years of experience with iterating, failing, and pivoting. I think it’s fair to say that, if you view Change.org as an important part of the advocacy landscape, then The Lean Startup is worth thinking around. It clearly has influenced their strategic thinking, and helped guide important decisions.
The question, however, is just how far we can extend the comparison. Nonprofit advocacy has some important differences from for-profit companies. Bringing disruptive new tech into the mix doesn’t erase the difference. Most importantly there’s a simplicity to business management that is not present for political advocates. The simple goal of businesses is to maximize profits. This goal is central to all elements of the lean startup model. Actionable metrics are the ones that actually tell you whether the product will sell. Vanity metrics don’t tell you that. Minimum viable products let you test the market before sinking a ton of resources, thus improving profitability. Iteration and pivoting are both driven by the profit motive.
The nonprofit world has no such prime directive. The goal of RebuildTheDream.com (whose Executive Director, Natalie Foster, was also on the panel) is to build a “movement for a sustainable economy, more jobs, accountability for Wall Street, fair share taxes for corporations—and an America that delivers on its promise of opportunity for all.” How should we measure that? What counts as an actionable metric? When do you know that it is time to pivot? There are, to be sure, answers to these questions. But they are not simple answers. They are the subject of deep debates among practitioners and social movement scholars alike. And lacking a simple, measurable bottom line, the foundations of the whole Lean Startup model become a good deal shakier.
This became particularly clear in one of Natalie’s answers during the Q&A session. Responding to a question about vanity metrics, Natalie noted that one of the biggest challenges was funder expectations. If foundations and major donors demand large petition drives and follower-counts, then organizations will be stuck pursuing those goals even if they know they’re nothing but vanity metrics. Advocacy groups are donor-driven in a way that startups aren’t, because it is much simpler for a startup to convince funders of their profit model than it is for an advocacy group to convince philanthropists of a social change model.
Indeed, this is even more the case today. One of the major points I make in The MoveOn Effect is that the Internet’s disruptive impact on nonprofit fundraising has made advocacy groups far more donor-driven than before. Organizations that used to rely on a stable base of direct mail fundraising now turn to a mix of targeted internet fundraising and large donor fundraising. Both of these sources tend to be program-specific — it’s much easier to raise money for a specific action than for field organizers or trainings. Some of the most important organizational infrastructure in the advocacy community simply isn’t very attractive to donors. And, lacking the simplicity of a for-profit bottom line, it’s pretty hard to move donors in the right direction.
Listening to that panel, I couldn’t help but sense a new bubble forming among advocacy professionals. “It’s so simple, success lies in following the lessons of silicon valley!” I see some value, but also plenty of risk down that path. So I suppose my take-away from the panel is twofold: (1) advocacy professionals should read The Lean Startup, there are some useful concepts in it. (2) they should read it with a skeptical eye. Applications to political advocacy are going to be messy and inexact.