Innovation by subtraction

Innovation in a nonprofit organization can mean a variety of things. It can mean something new – a process, a service, or a project, it can be something new to you – an approach, a tech add-on, or a partnership, but one thing we fail to realize is that it can also be the simple act of taking something out of our day to day. Innovation should drive better outcomes and that’s where the disconnect lies, we often prioritize outputs instead, looking at quick ways to hit our annual goals rather than take the time and care to make a long term difference in our society.

When I worked at a small nonprofit in the U.S. the outcomes were paramount, our organization had made a twelve year commitment to the students we worked with and this commitment was based on trust and the promise of better outcomes for their kids and ultimately their families. Thinking big in this instance was having them be the first of their family to go to college not from a standpoint of how we scale our success. Scale for this organization was growing when time allowed and with compounding progress, hitting our annual goals quickly and using this ‘bonus time’ to innovate around the edges.

My Executive Director at the time astutely drilled into me the difference between budget relief and budget enhancement, that it was easy for fundraisers to go out and talk about what ‘could be’ rather than basing these conversations on the immediate needs of the organization. The goal was to effectively ‘make budget’ and then find ways to grow from the surplus. 

For those playing at home, budget relief is receiving new sources of funding to effectively free up those budgeted funds to be deployed elsewhere. Budget enhancement is securing funding for new projects that had not been planned for that year. 

As I have said on many occasions, success in nonprofits does not scale like other businesses, you can’t take advantage of economies of scale and effectively need to raise additional funds and hire more staff to keep up with new demands (whether internal or external in nature). There are also issues with budget enhancement approaches and that’s because of the way grantmaking is structured, funding is normally cyclical in nature and puts organizations in longer term predicaments if that newly funded project fails to launch as it were.

Innovation by subtraction was one of the only tools I had at my disposal in that job and soon after I started my role there, we had jettisoned the annual golf day and effectively ‘sold’ the rights to the ongoing (and quite successful) ‘San Diego Beer run’ which ultimately didn’t align with the values of the organization. These two moves alone saved countless hours of staff time for the organization which were reallocated to fundraising efforts. Another big move was to remove the ‘get’ from the ‘give or get’ obligation of the board.

So how might a nonprofit organisation apply these innovation by subtraction approaches?


  • Not being afraid to disqualify prospects from a portfolio – moving from quantity to quality.
  • Starting the year by focusing on budget relief rather than enhancement – ensure financial stability before growing impact.
  • Less touches – can a prospect be asked for a gift ahead of previously predicted timelines?
  • Grant writing – focusing on larger funding opportunities rather than spending 10+ hours on grant applications of say $5,000.


  • Less meetings – the most liberating of choices.
  • Automation – are there apps or programs that can free up more time for fundraisers? Can we finally do away with the ‘many hats’ moniker?
  • Event audit – do all of our events have a positive ROI if we include the staff hours and asks associated with them?
  • To do lists – there is no way you are achieving 15 tasks in one day regardless of how optimistic you were when you wrote it down.


  • Less emails – can a monthly email become a quarterly one?
  • Less time checking emails – stop pulling that slot machine arm.
  • Website pages – all you need is a give now button and details on how to contact the development team. The website is a shop window not a major gift portal.

Ok, so we have a couple of examples, but how might we go about workshopping change? I’m definitely not advocating for throwing the baby out with the bath water, we are smarter than that. Over a set period of time the following steps can help you make informed decisions of what a subtraction strategy might deliver for your organisation.

  1. List all of the key parts of what services you offer – this isn’t your case for support, it’s what your organisation effectively offers those you seek to serve.
  2. Pick one and imagine eliminating it – don’t think in terms of scarcity, think in terms of freeing up your time.
  3. Visualize the service without that key part eliminated – would folks notice or are we failing to apply the duck on water test (when people see you gliding across the water, they dont notice you frantically paddle beneath the surface).
  4. Identify the pro’s & con’s – this step informs a decision.
  5. Trial the replacement – if it doesn’t work you can always revert back to the norm.
  6. Conversion – time to bake the new streamlined approach into your day-to-day (with the bonus of creating new metrics to support its ongoing evaluation).

As you can see, this is a simple, yet effective approach if we add it to our ongoing evaluation framework. Innovation by subtraction has the potential to save staff hours, provide a reason to wind up old approaches that have become burdensome over time, free up budgets and most importantly free up dollars to continue driving impact in our communities. I would encourage folks to add this approach to their annual planning retreats not just because it’s a worthwhile exercise but because the status quo stifles the impact we so desperately seek. It’s a simple equation in the end.

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