Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Continuous Improvement for Nonprofits

From Guest Blogger: Brian Leitten. Mr. Leitten is an experienced non-profit leader and consultant, chief executive and attorney.  He provides consulting services nationally to non-profit leaders from his office in Port Orange, Florida.  He can be reached at Leitten Consulting -

Non-profits need to practice the principles and techniques of continuous improvement (CI).  Better yet, they need to make CI part of the fabric of their organizations.

At its essence, CI is a repeatable process for improving processes.  While CI was principally developed in the for-profit world, it has broad application for non-profits.  Every operation is and will remain a collection of regularly repeated processes.  CI embraces the philosophy that those processes are ripe for improvement, even if they have been improved in the past.  Practically speaking, I’ve never met a process that can’t be improved by at least 15%.  That is a very significant number, translating into 1.2 freed up hours in an 8-hour work day.  CI not only frees up time that can be applied to other value-added functions -- it eliminates waste; reduces errors and mistakes; and improves quality of service – all desirable outcomes for a successful non-profit.  In any economy, non-profits need to run efficiently.  In the current down cycle, even more so.

The philosophy of CI is built up over time.  To instill it into an organization and make it last, the direction must come from the top down.  Active senior management involvement delivers a clear message that change is good and that experimentation and even occasional failure is okay and encouraged.  Management must also make it clear that improvements that result from CI will not result in job losses.  A solid promise that displaced workers will be retrained or reassigned to other value-added jobs is critical. 

At the same time, CI success comes from heavy involvement by those who know the processes best.  In the majority of situations, those who work the process daily know where processes fall short and where improvements can be made.  They may not have volunteered their observations or solutions in the past because they weren’t given the chance to; because they didn’t feel comfortable making suggestions for change; or because they feared they would eliminate their own jobs.  Over time, dedication to CI dispels these concerns and starts weaving CI into the organizational and cultural fabric.

CI comes in many different forms.  Individuals can work alone to improve their processes, using their own initiative and driven by the desire to make their work lives better.  Several employees can come together to start a project to address common issues and problems.  Projects work particularly well when it is recognized early in the process that the likely solution will require a time gap where someone separates from the group to build a critical tool(s) needed to complete the project.  Structured events represent the highest level of CI involvement.  They are scheduled in advance with a high level of awareness and recognition across the organization.  Events work well where rapid improvement that might otherwise take weeks or months is desired in a short time frame.  Events create focus and critical mass teams that can bust through barriers and deliver immediate results.

An example will illustrate the improvements that can be achieved through CI.  I’m just finishing a project with the FREE Foundation, a Virginia non-profit that collects and refurbishes rehab mobility equipment and gifts it to uninsured and under-insured individuals in need (

FREE is currently expanding its services to two major metro areas, Richmond and Hampton Roads.  Gifting is expected to more than double in the coming year.  Chapters report gifting and outcome data monthly to the parent organization.  The current process extends over one week each month and involves substantial hours of rework (re-entry of data) and inspection (review at the parent organization).  Realizing that this wasted time will grow with the expansion, FREE sought to improve the data reporting process before the new chapters came online.  A team of four (two involved in the monthly data reporting process, myself and the Foundation President) studied and mapped the current process, evaluated alternatives and laid out a plan to implement a significant improvement.  It was decided to build an online data collection and reporting tool that would allow each chapter to enter their monthly data remotely.  Once the data was entered, the tool would instantly roll up the chapter data into an organization-wide report.  As new data was entered every month, it would roll up year-to-date and quarterly statistics on gifting and outcomes, at the chapter and organization levels.  No data re-entry would be required.  Results would be instantaneously available.

I was assigned the task of building the tool.  Once a working model was ready, it was made available to the team for online testing.  Real-world data was entered and improvements were suggested and errors identified.  Several versions of the tool were built and tested.

The results reflect the value that can be created practicing CI.  The one-week period that was required each month to see final reports was reduced to a single day.  The parent organization and the chapters had instant access to all of the data.  All eight hours of data rework/re-entry and half of Executive Director’s inspection/review time were eliminated, simultaneously improving the quality of the data entered.  Outcome data entry, which was typically delayed by several days due to the priority of gifting data input, can now be scheduled as convenient and rolls up instantly.  The online tool incorporates training notes at the exact points where data is entered, further reducing data entry mistakes and errors in interpretation of data.  Color coding is incorporated to insure that each chapter enters its data in the correct locations.  Before and after process maps can be viewed at

In summary, CI is an extremely useful process that can add significant value to any non-profit.  Senior management needs to understand CI and make a visible commitment to support its implementation by everyone in the organization.  Over time, CI can become one of the fundamental tools that drives ongoing organizational success.

Brian Leitten, guest blogger, can be reached at Leitten Consulting -

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