Using Sprints in Nonprofits

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Running is actually one of the points of common interest that Jessica and I first learned about each other when we met. I’ve been a casual runner since middle school, although I’ll admit, I’ve always preferred long distance and cross country trails over sprinting and short-distance track events. Yet, now, when Jessica and I sit down to talk about sprints, we aren’t usually talking about the distance we are running or the event we might be planning to participate in, now we are talking about the cycles of work for teams utilizing the Scrum framework.


The irony is not lost on me that professionally, I *love* sprints, not only for our teams at DH Leonard Consulting as well as Agile in Nonprofits, but as a way to help our nonprofit clients think about the cadence with which they focus on iterating and improving both their service/product as well as their teams.


It is our mutual love of sprints as a cadence for the way we approach our work that we were excited to have a chance so sit down together and chat with Eric Ressler, the Founder & Creative Director of a company called Cosmic. We reached out to Eric and asked if he would be willing to participate in an interview with us because his article, “Why We Sprint — and Why Your Nonprofit Should, Too,” really got us excited about how Cosmic is helping nonprofits adopt Agile principles and values!


How did Cosmic get started with Sprinting?


Eric: We started using Sprints back in Cosmic’s early years when we needed a process to work with our clients that would allow open communication and regular feedback. Sprints gave us a weekly cadence with regular check-ins and weekly demonstrations of working products. Rapid feedback loops allowed us to create innovative product solutions that delighted our clients.


How do you introduce the concept of Sprints to your clients?


Check out this snippet from the full interview where Eric explains how Cosmic helps nonprofits understand that indeed, Sprints aren’t about running, but about a way of approaching work.


Eric: When we introduce nonprofit clients to Sprints it’s usually in the form of a weekly demo. This is a weekly meeting where we demonstrate the functionality of the product we develop each week. Our development teams gradually share more information about our Agile approach introducing the concept of regular check-ins. This is a daily meeting where our internal teams discuss the progress we are making on developing the product. When nonprofits see the value of the regular touch points and inclusion of feedback in product/service development, they tend to take the best practices they learn back to their own organization.


Why do nonprofits find Sprints to be so valuable?


Eric: The concept of Sprints creates this rapid generation of progress that may not always be shared or experienced by nonprofits. The temptation is to spend a lot of time upfront planning and strategizing about initiatives when an experimental approach would allow the concepts to be tested out much more rapidly. Using a design-thinking approach allows nonprofits to better understand the needs of their communities. Rather than trying to execute large projects, nonprofits adopt the approach of breaking them into small experimental pieces which results in faster execution of initiatives for the community.


What is the next step that nonprofits should take after they successfully begin Sprinting? Is there an Agile principle or value that you believe should closely follow?


Eric: Sprints are really timeboxes and a structure for scheduled events. Once that structure is in place, the next initiative should be to ensure the right stakeholders are involved in the events. 

If they are not involved in a timely manner, development work can be well underway when they become aware of the initiative. Now there inclusion may cause significant restructure as they buy in and shape the strategic direction. We’ve found that the decision makers are often higher level Executives and Directors. Their time is often very limited so it is crucial to include them upfront in the discovery phase and then we can periodically include them at feedback points to ensure we are on the right track. 


Do you have an example of a nonprofit that adopted Sprints because of their working relationship with Cosmic?

Check out this snippet from the full interview about how Cosmic helped inspire the implementation of Sprints and Agile principles with Santa Cruz Economic Development.


Eric: Cosmic launched their new brand, created a video series, and captured 4,000 photos across the city in sixteen weeks. The Cosmic team recognized that part of the reason they were successful with Santa Cruz implementing Sprints was because they had already taken the time to establish trust by conducting a pilot project together. Both teams had a collaborative process and were excited about creating a new brand together. The Economic Development Department started sprinting by setting up a weekly standing meeting where they were able to demonstrate progress on their individual initiatives. They also made the meeting a safe space where people could bring up problems that were blocking them from making progress towards their goals. Because of this new approach they were able to build capacity and enhance their level of collaboration.


What changes when nonprofits solicit regular community and stakeholder reviews?


Eric: Regular community and stakeholder reviews really strengthens the outcome of the initiative. Demonstrating unfinished product to the community and stakeholders for feedback can be a nerve wracking process. But prototyping and minimum marketable features are really about trust and being vulnerable with the progress that you have made. You have to be open to showing things that may be a little bit messy and not refined. Exposing progress is necessary to ensure that the product or service is on the right track to meeting the community’s needs.


Any closing thoughts for our nonprofits?


Eric: Agile principles and values can be applied to many different types of work. As you research the many articles, blogs, and books available to you don’t be overwhelmed by the depth of information. Rather select one or two principles or best practices to try out in your nonprofit. Think of Agile and Sprints as something you adopt incrementally.


You can see the full interview with Eric here:


What questions do you have about sprints? How to decide the length? How to decide who participates? 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 sprints in your team.