Our vision at Agile in Nonprofits is to support nonprofit organizations in their Agile transformation so that they can achieve a greater impact in their communities faster than ever before. Usually, we are talking with existing nonprofits about how it is that they can first start utilizing the Scrum framework within their existing organizational structure and culture. But it leaves us wondering…what if the way that for profit start-up businesses embrace Agile, a nonprofit, uses the Scrum framework to launch the organization? Would they grow faster than other new nonprofits? Would they collaborate more? Would they look or sound different from other nonprofits?
There are so many questions about what it looks like to have a nonprofit founded using Agile principles! Therefore, Jessica and I were excited to have a chance to hear directly from Eric Englemann to learn about how he used Agile principles and the Scrum framework to found and grow the nonprofit New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative (NewBoCo).
What inspired you to create NewBoCo and what do you think is the value of starting a nonprofit out with Agile?
Eric: I started a company in 1999 called Geonetric in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At that company we had gone through a massive organizational change which was centered around agility and Scrum in particular. Fifteen years into that role I decided to make a change and started up a nonprofit called NewBoCo.The vision of our nonprofit was to help entrepreneurs build new organizations in Eastern Iowa. We understood that our vision would extend beyond direct entrepreneurship to all of the adjacent and supportive qualities that sustain and support a new business.
When you start an organization with Agile in mind from inception, you are able to hire and build that organization around the values that are most important to you. It makes a difference to be able to hire individuals who embody your ideal values rather than work with an existing team organized around vastly different values and having to rehire or majorly overhaul. Scrum is incredibly valuable when building an organization. The world changes really quickly and having an infrastructure in place that supports rapid change really sets you up for success.
How did you handle team growth when you got to set the stage from the beginning?
Eric: Over the years we grew from a team of two, expanded into different markets, and broke the organization into three groups. The three groups are entrepreneurs, education, and corporate clients. The best parallel for how we handled the growth is “cell division”. In our education group we had a program that trained adults on software development and a program where we teach teachers computer science in schools. They are similar and yet different initiatives so we let the teams determine when they work together and when they work separately.
We let the team decide when that cost benefit trade off makes sense from when they should work together as one team with one Product Owner and when they need to be separate teams. To give an example of how fluid this process is. Every year we put on a big event called EntreFEST. Hundreds of people attend this event. The weeks leading up to the event results in a migration of team members to other teams to ensure each team is optimally skilled to execute the program. The whole organization is now composed of nineteen people and is really flexible in terms of team structure that has grown organically from the very beginning.
In your article, “Building an Agile Nonprofit” I couldn’t help notice that you featured a rolling Scrum board. What is the value of a nonprofit making their work visible on things like a Scrum board?
Eric: One way that transparency is manifested in our organization is through our Scrum boards. Now that our teams are working from home most of our Scrum boards are electronic. When we set everything up we really wanted to be as transparent as we possibly could within the constraints of a few governance things that needed to remain confidential. The budget and financial information is transparent and each team talks about what they have learned and what didn’t go well so we can pivot where necessary. Salary information is also made fully transparent. The level of transparency is designed to foster a spirit of trust, to build accountability, and to decentralize decision making.
Have you found any resistance to salary transparency?
Eric: We’ve attempted to combine years of experience and performance to provide a transparent range for salary and prevent weird negotiations behind the scenes. We have the ability to say this is what we are paying for this position and it is in line with what the market pays. There is no gender or racial discrimination. If someone gets a raise or promotion it can’t be because they are buddies with someone else. Some people’s work is by nature more visible and celebrated by others and we didn’t want that to be part of a salary decision.
What are some of the ways that NewBoCo has been impacted by Covid-19?
Eric: We run a code school for adults learning to code. It’s intended and designed to be conducted in person. It was quite the shift to move it to a virtual class and worked surprisingly well. Another example of the impacts of Covid-19 was our EntreFest event which was conducted as an online event. The team found creative ways to ship supplies in person to make the online learning experience more engaging. Coding clubs for kids were also moved online which we never did before. Sometimes we identify a change in a situation as a problem because it challenges our initial plan but it’s also an opportunity in many ways. The EntreFest would normally only appeal to people that could come to Iowa for a couple of days. Now potential attendees have expanded to include people from all over the world. There is a lot of learning that comes with adjusting to an unforeseen pandemic.
What are some of the impacts that Agile has had on NewBoCo’s financial performance?
Eric: Our strategy is unusual and maybe the opposite of most startups. Instead of picking one thing and doing it well, we identified core issues that had many adjacent and interrelated problems. In the beginning we knew we would have a lot of breadth, it’s kind of like that mile wide inch deep mentality. This is one of the reasons why our portfolio has expanded to cover a large number of initiatives and why nineteen people are capable of staffing all of those different initiatives.
We also foster autonomous teams that can make their own prioritization calls. Together they balance the needs and priorities of our nonprofit. An example of this would be that we can’t afford to have a marketing resource for each individual team. Instead, the teams share the marketing resource amongst each other carefully balancing the prioritization of work so that they can all be successful. Our teams also have the ability to determine if it makes sense to outsource work when we do not have the skills internally to achieve a desired outcome.
How have you helped board members understand the Agile approach?
Eric: Our board is really focused on core governance functions. Day to day they are not involved with how our teams do work. The board’s purpose is to help with governance and strategy for the nonprofit. There is no constraint that requires them to be knowledgeable about Agile. However, they need to tolerate the way that we work. Look for board members who can handle an open and transparent working environment where there is very little hierarchy and the atmosphere is highly collaborative.
How do you translate internal team metrics to your board?
Eric: We don’t translate metrics. I believe that is an anti-pattern. We have a dashboard that we use on https://outcomes.newbo.co/ that is live and public where anyone can go to see the progress we have made towards our goals on an annual basis. This helps ensure the organization is a good steward of resources. In our board meetings we discuss if we are meeting our goals. We have tried to ensure that goals tie directly to the budget and to our desired outcomes.
Is there anything we’ve missed about the non-traditional way NewBoCo is operating?
Eric: As you know the Black Lives Matter movement is happening right now and it’s everywhere. We just had an all hands meeting and one of our employees exhibited the Scrum value of courage and said at the all hands, “Our whole staff is not particularly diverse and neither is our board, so what are we going to do about that?” Having an atmosphere that allows employees to openly question disparities without the fear of repercussions is crucial to having a healthy and transparent working environment.
You can see the full interview with Eric here:
What questions do you have about starting a project or organization from scratch with the Scrum framework? How to decide on the team members? How to decide which communication tools you use? We’d love to help! Share your comments and questions in the comments section and our team will be sure to answer and help you with implementing the Scrum framework.