From “Breakout Idea” to Business Plan

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Accelerators first appeared in the early part of this century as a response to the intense competition and rapid pace of change in the technology industry. Success for tech entrepreneurs depended on (1) getting to market quickly (2) with the right idea or product and (3) scaling quickly before the idea became yesterday’s news. While business accelerators have been around for a decade, the concept is just beginning to be applied to the social impact arena.

For nonprofit entrepreneurs, similar stakes are on the line. Enterprising organizations that are set out to address complex social issues and find themselves with a proven program that they want to scale or grow for the biggest impact, may find that an accelerator can help get them there. The benefits of accelerator participation are largely the same for businesses and nonprofits; i.e., shared learning around new tools and ideas; access to people with experience launching and scaling products and services; and an accelerated path to market.

With Greenlights’ second Accelerator class just getting underway, I wanted to give a look at what a nonprofit accelerator looks like and how you can use practices and theories on your own personal mission.

Why Greenlights’ Accelerator works

Austin’s robust entrepreneurial climate in combination with the resource represented by Greenlights’ staff and Social Venture Partners lends unique access to business experts with a social venture/social impact mindset. In addition, as Fernando Sepulveda stated in an article for INC., a key role of accelerators is to provide management consulting. Greenlights’ 13 year history of consulting for area nonprofits – and doing so through the lens of being a nonprofit ourselves – positions us to provide experienced and knowledgeable staff to serve as project managers for Accelerator teams.

The key here is bringing together 3 elements:

  • The Right Mission-Driven Nonprofits: rigorously-selected mission-driven organizations with an important, innovative “Big Idea” and proven program
  • Engaged Business Experts: entrepreneurs and other business experts who serve as advisors, presenters and coaches
  • Experienced Consultants: professional Greenlights staff with experience in consulting and nonprofit leadership who provide project management for each team in the Accelerator

In addition to the proper people, we’re providing nonprofit participants with five months of learning and partnership through a class curriculum, enrichment learning sessions, team planning meetings, networking with business and nonprofit entrepreneurs, research and concept testing. After the program, Greenlights follows up with all Accelerator participants to monitor and support progress toward implementing their business plans. In addition, following the Accelerator program and final Demo Day pitches, Greenlight’s Social Venture Partners select one of the Accelerants as an SVP Investee to receive capital investments over the next one to three years.

Social entrepreneurship in practice

If you’re a nonprofit (or board member) looking to incorporate some entrepreneurial practices into your work or if you’re not quite ready to apply for the Accelerator (but may in the next few years!), here are some takeaways for you.

Immerse yourself in a learning environment which encourages questions, failures and continuous improvement. One principle that runs through Greenlights’ Accelerator program is the Socratic Method. By asking questions and acknowledging that no one person has all the answers, everyone at your organization can learn together. This can take place within your organization by encouraging your team to ask, try, test, and iterate.

Integrate “lean startup” principles such as using iteration to drive early pivots and a strong focus on the “Business Model Canvas” as a foundational tool for business plan development. Rather than taking 6 or 9 months or even a year to write a business plan only to find after launching it that it required re-tooling, make early quick iterations. For example, we don’t ask Accelerants for a traditional “thick as a phone book” business plan but rather work with them to create an agile “modular” plan that can be easily modified to address the specific interests of different audiences. You can do the same with your strategic planning process or even program-based planning.

Finally, watch and be inspired by nonprofit innovation and entrepreneurism happening right at home. Our past Accelerator graduates, such as Easter Seals Central Texas, are doing exciting things in the community. Local events and opportunities to engage with these social innovators can bring that extra boost of enthusiasm and ideas you may need. Greenlights’ upcoming AustinNext event on June 3, and Mission Driven on September 10-11 are great opportunities to continue to push yourself in these areas.

With Greenlights’ unique position with one foot firmly in the nonprofit sector and the other rooted in consulting and management practices (especially with a deep bench of business-savvy Social Venture Partners, always looking to add more players), makes the Greenlights’ Accelerator the first of its kind in Central Texas. Together these elements create a rich foundation for the development of a nonprofit accelerator that can both provide significant value to our community and serve as a model to inspire and guide others.


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