How to Use the Sprint Methodology to Achieve Bold Nonprofit Goals

20 min
William Schmidt
Will Schmidt

The book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days (Sprint) was written by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz for tech startups. Their intent is to help companies rapidly ideate, build, and test prototypes in a real-world environment.

But nonprofits can leverage these insights just as well, especially since their goals are the same:

You want to deliver [a] vision to the world, whether it’s a message or a service or an experience, software or hardware or even—as in the case of this book—a story or an idea. But bringing a vision to life is difficult.”

Sprint
Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz

A sprint is a designated five-day timeframe wherein you quickly build and test ideas that bring these visions to life. When the sprint methodology is applied properly, you can find out if your next big idea is worth the commitment without wasting valuable time and money.

The authors tell us that “the best sprints are used to solve important problems,” and they “encourage you to pick a big fight.” Just like any for-profit company or tech startup, nonprofits have grand visions to share, important problems to solve, and big fights to win.

Giving Tuesday is the social sector’s biggest giving day of the year. And with what the authors tell us about a sprint, it’s a great opportunity for you to chase down a goal that’s just as big.

In this post, expect us to break down some of the basics as introduced in the book, like why you should consider a sprint, details of the sprint methodology framework, and how to structure a sprint team. Then, we’ll dive into a mock five-day sprint that follows an ambitious Giving Tuesday goal, taking you from Monday all the way to Friday.

Why Sprint?

The sprint methodology can help us focus on, and answer, our biggest questions about a new idea before we commit to executing it.

Identifying critical flaws after just five days of work is the height of efficiency. It’s learning the hard way, without the hard way.”

Sprint
Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz

For example, if you’re doing a rebrand for your website a sprint could show you how your audience responds to the new design. If they like it, you’re all systems go. Should they find it disengaging, you can pivot to a new concept.

Regardless, you have an answer as to how your new design will work without spending the time or money to fully implement it. According to Sprint, there are a few key situations where a sprint could be most helpful:

  • You’re facing a high-stakes problem that costs a lot of time and money to solve
  • There’s a tight deadline approaching and you need a solution, fast
  • You’re having a tough time beginning to execute a new idea

You’re going to need a dynamite team to pull off a successful sprint.

Assemble Your Sprint Team

Not everyone at your organization can be a member of the sprint team, but it’s important you have a healthy mix of departments and skillsets represented.

You know your staff best and can make the right judgement call, but there are a few archetypes Sprint recommends for your team. All told, there are seven different roles:

  • The Decider: A person in a position of authority that’s comfortable making big decisions. They will make the crucial decisions during your sprint.
  • Finance expert: Someone who can explain where money comes from and where it goes.
  • Marketing expert: Ideally, this should be someone in charge of marketing, brand, design, or communications.
  • Customer expert: A person who regularly interacts with your different communities and networks.
  • Tech/Logistics expert: An individual who understands or knows how to use your technologies.
  • Design expert: The person involved in designing your brand, aesthetic, or campaigns.
  • Facilitator: This person is responsible for managing the entire sprint.

After you select your team, prepare your environment.

Set the Mood

Everyone has to fully commit to the sprint methodology. This means the team clears their entire schedule, Monday through Friday.

During your sprint, nobody is allowed to use any kind of device, unless for important work situations or during breaks. In either case, you must leave the sprint room to handle your device.

Try to book the same conference room or workspace for the entire week if you can. Get your hands on two large whiteboards, or something similar you can write on.

As humans, our short-term memory is not all that good, but our spatial memory is awesome. A sprint room, plastered with notes, diagrams, printouts, and more, takes advantage of that spatial memory. The room itself becomes a sort of shared brain for the team.”

Sprint
Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz

Each day will start at 10 a.m. with the exception of Friday, which begins at 9 a.m. to ensure a full roster of user tests. Additionally, Sprint suggests breaking your hours down like so:

  • Work: 10:00 to 11:30 / 11:45 to 1:00 / 2:00 to 3:30 / 3:45 to 5:00
  • Break: 11:30 to 11:45 / 3:30 to 3:45
  • Lunch: 1:00
  • End: 5:00

You start at 10 a.m. so people can check in, clean up any housekeeping, and get settled before starting the day. Ending at 5 p.m. ensures people retain enough energy to carry the sprint all week.

Now, gear up because you’ve got an energetic and exciting week ahead of you.

The Week at a Glance

On Monday, you’ll map out the problem and pick an important place to focus. On Tuesday, you’ll sketch competing solutions on paper. On Wednesday, you’ll make difficult decisions that turn your ideas into a testable hypothesis. On Thursday, you’ll hammer out a realistic prototype. And on Friday, you’ll test it with real live humans.”

Sprint
Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz

Below are detailed goals for each day:

Monday

  • Agree to a long-term goal you want to achieve through your sprint
  • Create a detailed map of what you’re trying to solve and how you will solve it
  • Consult with experts to round out the strategy to achieve your goal
  • Choose a target for where you will focus during the rest of the sprint

Tuesday

  • Source external, pre-existing ideas for inspiration
  • Sketch solutions to your challenge

Wednesday

  • Critique the sketched solutions
  • Pick a solution that will give you the best chance of achieving your long-term goal
  • Draw a storyboard of chosen sketches and ideas

Thursday

  • Build your prototype

Friday

  • Present your prototype to customers or constituents and interview them about it
  • Study their reactions to your prototype
  • Have a solution for how you can achieve your long-term goal

Mock Sprint

Now that you know the basics around the sprint methodology framework, we’ll dive into a mock sprint designed to illustrate the process.

According to the authors, sprints work best with bold goals.

For the purpose of this example, we will set the ambitious goal to increase new donors on Giving Tuesday by 50 percent.

Monday

If you don’t have a long-term goal already selected, the first thing you and your team will do on Monday is to set that goal. Then, write it on top of the whiteboard:

“We want to increase new donors on Giving Tuesday by 50 percent”

Almost immediately after you write it on your whiteboard, you need to poke holes. Imagine any roadblocks, obstructions, and problems that could cause you to fail.

For example, maybe you won’t meet your goal because you assume new donors would find you organically. Now, as Sprint recommends, turn that into a question: “How do we meet new donors where they are?”

By starting at the end with these questions, you’ll face your fears. Big questions and unknowns can be discomforting, but you’ll feel relieved to see them all listed in one place. You’ll know where you’re headed and what you’re up against.”

Sprint
Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz

Map Out Your Path

Once you know where you’re headed and what you’re up against, you can map your journey: literally. This map doesn’t need to be an artistic masterpiece, but it does need to have a beginning, middle, and end.

Begin on the left of your whiteboard and list out all the different groups relevant to your long-term goal. For our donor acquisition goal, this would be one group only, labeled “New Donors.”

On the far right of the whiteboard, write what you want this group to accomplish. We’ll label this ending “Complete a Donation.”

In the middle, you’ll connect these two ends with simple words, arrows, and boxes. This is reflective of the potential journey of a “New Donor” from discovering your organization to completing a donation.

For example, a new donor could:

  1. See a social media post from an existing donor about their gift
  2. Click the link on their post to your website
  3. Read a story about your organization’s impact
  4. Follow the call to action and click the “Donate Now” button
  5. Enter their payment information
  6. Complete the checkout

They’re there in six moves, and this is only one path from beginning to end. There are likely multiple ways a new donor will move through your story to complete a checkout.

Pro Tip
Keep it simple. Sprint suggests including only 5 to 15 total steps in your map. These will be more surface level that you will detail in full over the course of the week.

Consult Your Experts

You may need outside expertise to identify and fill gaps in your map. Call in experts from your organization for 30-minute interviews and have them:

  • Review your whiteboard
  • Share what they know about your challenge
  • Fill in anything you missed or correct what you got wrong
  • Adjust the map if necessary

Our mock sprint team may consult with a volunteer coordinator, for example. This expert could show you a pathway you hadn’t seen before: a current volunteer sends out an email to all their friends and family asking for campaign support.

If they’re truly experts, they’ll tell you things you wouldn’t know to ask.”

Sprint
Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz

As these interviews happen, have your team write down their notes. Sprint uses the “How Might We” method to turn these neutral notes into compelling questions.

If you took notes from the meeting with your volunteer coordinator about recruiting through volunteer networks, you could write: “How might we leverage a volunteer’s network to recruit new donors?”

Analyze Your Notes

Take all your “How Might We” notes and place them on the wall. Step back and start to pick out key themes, then regroup your notes together by those patterns.

For our mock sprint, some of those notes could ask “How Might We”:

  • Encourage action from someone who’s never heard of us
  • Grab the attention of younger demographics
  • Create grabby social media promotions and marketing materials
  • Incentivize current supporters to recruit new donors
  • Steward new donors to give again in the future

You need to vote on which of these notes is most relevant to your long-term goal and help you further define your path to success. There will be a lot of situations throughout your sprint where you vote like this, and to minimize time-consuming discussions, Sprint uses dot voting.

Each person on your team gets two large dot stickers for their votes, and The Decider gets four. After everyone has voted, align your picks to the map you drew earlier.

Most will likely correspond to a specific step of the journey. For example, “Create grabby social media promotions” would ladder up to your second step on the map, wherein a new donor “Sees a current donor post about their gift on social media, on Giving Tuesday.” If you see a lot of votes grouped together, it’s likely a signifier of a strong opportunity.

Next, The Decider will choose where your focus will remain for the rest of the week based on which option presents the greatest opportunity. In our mock sprint room, The Decider chooses:

  • Activate current donors, volunteers, and fundraisers to help recruit new donors

Your Monday is over, and you know your objective. Tuesday is all about forming solutions for how you accomplish that objective.

Tuesday

Your team will spend Tuesday morning sourcing inspiration to help create different solutions to your challenge. You’ll study existing companies, other nonprofits, services, or ideas that already exist.

Then, your team will present their ideas to the room, explaining how this idea can help with your challenge.

Pro Tip
The Facilitator should begin reaching out to potential people for Friday’s user-testing, today. For our mock sprint, you’ll want to find individuals who are active with philanthropy, but haven’t heard of your nonprofit before. Sprint tells us that a small incentive like a gift card can help get them in the door, and if all else fails in your recruitment efforts a simple Craigslist post can drive people to you.

Get Inspired

Ask your team to think about other companies, nonprofits, fundraising campaigns, products, or services that inspire a solution for your sprint challenge. Reinforce your long-term goal, customer journey, and targets for this exercise.

After your team has a list, ask them to choose their top idea. Then, everyone gets three minutes to present theirs to the room. As they speak, take notes on useful ideas, sketch a small drawing of the idea, give it a headline, and note the source.

One example could be the Airbnb referral program. When a user invites someone else to use the platform, they can share a referral code by email or through social media that gives each person a credit to use on the platform.

The presentation would consist of a team member demonstrating how to share a referral code through these mediums. One potential note from this could be:

  • Idea: Share referral codes in multiple ways
  • Headline: Multi-share referral codes
  • Source: Airbnb referral program

Another idea to come out of this might be:

  • Idea: Incentivize referrals
  • Headline: Referral rewards
  • Source: Airbnb referral program

During this time, don’t make decisions or debate. Just capture anything useful from the presentation.

Get Artistic

On Tuesday afternoon, your team needs to form a hypothesis around what could solve your challenge at hand. To do this, you’ll begin drawing detailed, thorough, and easy-to-understand sketches from the ideas presented.

For our mock sprint, we’ll take the idea “Multi-share referral codes” and flesh it out further with a short, three-page storyboard:

  • Frame One: A supporter generates a referral code link, with the option to share it on social media, email, or text. The promotional copy reads: “We’re looking for new donors to support this campaign. If you give through my link here, your first donation will be matched up to $50 by our dedicated partners.”
  • Frame Two: A potential new donor sees the link and clicks it, which takes them to the donation page.
  • Frame Three: The new donor enters their donation amount, sees the matching gift, and completes the checkout. 

At the end of the day, it’s all about the quality of the solutions that matter here, not the artistry or drawing. These will serve as your starting point on Wednesday.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, you and your team will hang everyone’s sketches on the walls and evaluate. Remember, your goal is to decide which solution you’re officially going to prototype.

Vote and Critique

To start, each person will place dots on the most exciting ideas, and add any questions or concerns below the sketch. The group evaluation will show what stands out the strongest.

Continuing with our Tuesday sketch, we’ll say there are a lot of dots on frame one, grouped on the social copy and the part about a matching gift exclusively for new donations.

There also may be questions added to this sketch that read:

  • Do we provide current supporters with social copy?
  • Who should we get to match donations?
  • How do we build referral links?

Your Facilitator will then narrate the sketches on the wall while your team takes notes. Then, you’ll review the questions as a group, but during this process the sketch creator will remain silent.

After you run through the sketch, the creator can chime in to explain any missed ideas or answer questions. Don’t let anyone “sell” to the room though. Your final idea needs to stand on its own in the real world with no extra help from the creator.

Vote, Round Two   

Once you’ve gone through everyone’s sketch, your team is at an important crossroads. You will choose what to build on Thursday.

Everyone gets one vote and 10 minutes to decide what the best idea is. It could be an entire sketch or simply one idea from a sketch.

Then, each person gets one minute to explain their vote to the room. The Decider must pay very close attention, because they get the ultimate power to cast the final and deciding vote.

The Decider is a member of your team specifically for moments like this and gets three votes. They can vote in alignment with the team or their own instinct; they can cast all votes for one idea or choose multiple ideas across sketches.

Analyzing our mock sprint sketch and the corresponding votes on it, The Decider votes to:

  • Build a referral program for existing and new donors
  • Provide current supporters with referral links and social copy
  • Secure a partner to match incoming first-time donations

You started your sprint with the long-term goal to increase new donors by 50 percent on Giving Tuesday. Now, at this moment, you have a solution that will help you achieve this goal—put it down on a whiteboard.

Create Your Story

Before you build a prototype, you need to unite all the pieces of your sprint into one cohesive story. As a team, you will create a 10 to 15-step storyboard on one of your whiteboards.

Sprint suggests starting with the opening question: “What’s the best opening scene?” That is, where will someone engage with your solution before they actually land on your solution?

With our example, before anyone encounters a referral link on a social media post, they’re going to log into their account. So, for our mock sprint the opening scene could be someone logging into their account.

Once you have an opening scene, create the entire journey together as a team. It could look something like this:

  • New donor logs into their social media account
  • They browse the newsfeed and click friends’ posts, profiles, and hashtags
  • On a friend’s page, they see a new post that calls them to support a campaign
  • The copy is compelling, and there’s mention of a matching gift for all first-time donors
  • New donor is intrigued, clicks through to a page explaining all the details of the campaign and matching gifts
  • Locates the donate button, clicks through to the donation page
  • Fills in their information and sees the matching gift applied
  • Completes the checkout
  • Referrer gets automated email from the nonprofit thanking them for referral
  • Referrer unlocks special incentives as new donors make donations through their link

This process will likely take up your entire Wednesday afternoon, but it’s important to remain patient and map out as many details as you can. After all, the storyboard will be your blueprint for Thursday’s prototype.

Thursday

Kick Thursday off with a brief reflection on where you’ve come since Monday. This can be an energizing moment that helps your team push through the finish line strong.

No matter what you commit to build, maintain a strong sense of optimism that you will create a successful solution and your team has the expertise to pull it together, because you can, and they do.

Get Your Head Straight  

To prototype your solution, you’ll need a temporary change of philosophy: from perfect to just enough, from long-term quality to temporary simulation.”

Sprint
Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz

Remember, you’re not building a fully finished product here, just the illusion of one. Your goal is to test a larger-than-life idea to gauge its viability before being built.

Given the technical nature of our mock sprint solution to build a referral program, it may require someone with coding experience to bring to life. That can cost a lot of time and money, but you don’t need to worry about that now.

Right now, all you need to worry about is putting together a solution that looks and feels like a real referral program experience. At the end of your user-testing on Friday, you’ll know whether or not investing the time and money into hiring a developer to build your solution will be worth it.

Many Hands Make Light Work

There are various players needed to build your prototype. You’ll pull together as one team, consisting of the following roles suggested by Sprint:

  • Makers (2 or more): Creates the individual components of your prototype, like screens and pages
  • Stitcher (1): Collects components from the Makers and combine them in a seamless fashion
  • Writer (1): Fills in all the text to make your prototype feel real
  • Asset Collector (1 or more): Searches everywhere for elements like icons, photos, or sample content to provide the Makers
  • Interviewer (1): Remains absent from the prototyping process on Thursday to create a script for Friday to ensure they don’t influence customer reactions
Pro Tip
To create the illusion of a fully working referral program experience, Sprint recommends tools like Keynote or PowerPoint. You can create a flow that mimics the real-world browsing experience with relatively little experience. We won’t go into all the details here about how, but check out this page for more information.

Divide up the different sections of your storyboard and start building. Double and triple-check that dates, times, names, and other fake content are consistent and error-free throughout your prototype.

Then, around 3 p.m., do a trial run of your prototype using the Interviewer as the main audience. Look for any mistakes or gaps that need to be filled, plug them up, and get ready to test with customers.

Friday

On Tuesday, your Facilitator began sourcing people for your Friday tests. You need five people who are willing to come in for a one-hour interview to explore a new prototype.

One-on-one interviews are a remarkable shortcut…They deliver meaningful results in a single day. But they also offer an important insight that’s nearly impossible to get with large-scale quantitative data: why things work or don’t work.”

Sprint
Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz

Why Five?

Sprint cites a study by Jakob Nielsen to back up the count of five. According to Nielsen, 85 percent of problems encountered during user-testing for website usability were evident after only five interviews.

Instead of investing a great deal more time to find the last 15 percent, Nielsen realized he could fix the 85 percent and just test again. We’ve seen the same phenomenon in our own tests. By the time we observe the fifth customer, we’re just confirming patterns that showed up in the first four interviews.”

Sprint
Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz

Host the Interview

Gather your sprint team in one room, your Interviewer in a separate one, and link the two via webcam. As the Interview runs through their script, the team will watch and take diligent notes.

Sprint tells us that establishing their comfort is crucial for open, honest, and critical feedback. So, as each person arrives start with some small talk to make them comfortable. Let them know you’ll be recording this for internal purposes only.

Pro Tip
Never forget to ask someone’s permission before you record an interview, and make sure you have them sign any necessary waivers before you get started.

Then, it’s time to show your prototype. As you go, encourage your testers to:

  • Think out loud
  • Be candid with both positive and negative reactions
  • Point out areas of friction and confusion
  • Mention things that they enjoy

It’s crucial your Interviewer doesn’t lead the individual to conclusions. Equally important is keeping your prospective donor moving and thinking out loud, not anxious to provide a right answer.

Your script will help keep the interviews going smoothly, and they will provide consistency across each tester. That, in turn, makes it easier to spot recurring patterns throughout the day.

The Final Huddle-Up

Once your last interview leaves, the team may feel drained, but don’t let people break without a debrief. The end of Friday is potentially the most important part of your entire sprint.

Revisit your North Star from Monday, talk through your interviews, examine all notes, and make your final conclusion about the viability of your idea. This is where you will know, confidently, what your next steps are for implementing a full solution.

For example, with our mock sprint the user-testing could reveal that most of the idea is a success, but there are a few areas for improvement:

  • All five participants were drawn in with a post from current supporters about the campaign, as well as the matching gift for first-time donors.
  • However, when they clicked through to your page explaining everything their focus faltered. They ultimately found the donate button, but it took longer than expected.
  • Upon reaching the donation page, all five testers completed their checkout.
  • However, the automated email sent to the referrer didn’t work as planned and confused some of the participants as to who gets the referral incentive.

The sprint was more than successful, and with a few quick fixes you can polish your referral program idea before implementing it in full. Further, you didn’t have to sink money into building a solution based purely on hopes and dreams.

Maybe the best part about a sprint is that you can’t lose. If you test your prototype with customers, you’ll win the best prize of all—the chance to learn, in just five days, whether you’re on the right track with your ideas.”

Sprint
Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz

If you want to explore the full depth of the sprint methodology framework, and map it to your other goals, we recommend reading the entire book. However, what we have here should be enough to kickstart your engine and get the ideas rolling.

Let us know in the comments if you give this a go. We’d love to hear how you adapted it to fit your organization. Good luck and happy sprinting!


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