What’s a Nonprofit Accelerator Anyway?

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Although there are many promising nonprofits who are primed to make a big impact in the community through strong, innovative programs, most organizations don’t take advantage of their own capacity for innovation. Interestingly, we see this concern for dramatic growth and innovation in the for-profit sector as well, where some companies have taken to the concept of an accelerator or incubator. We’re just now seeing this model as a growing solution for nonprofits as well, and our new Accelerator is designed to help local nonprofits significantly grow an existing, high-potential program or service.

We recently held a Q&A Session to help nonprofits learn more about this new opportunity. After the event, we held a short interview with our own Kate Smallwood, who gave us the scoop on the new program: 

Applying to Austin’s First Nonprofit Accelerator

What’s an “accelerator” anyway? And how will it help my nonprofit?

Kate: The term “Accelerator” is often used in the technology and start-up world. The idea is that an infusion of human and financial capital is often needed to dramatically grow a powerful idea. Our version of that is the Greenlights and Innovation+ Accelerator, which we’re piloting for the first time in just a few months! The Accelerator is a rigorous, four-month program designed to advance the growth and impact of an organization through consulting, mentoring and peer learning. After completion, participating organizations will walk away with an “investor-ready” business growth plan for one program or service.

How does the Greenlights and Innovation+ Accelerator relate to Philanthropitch 2014?

Kate: We’re excited this year to collaborate with BuildASign.com on Philanthropitch 2014. We’re both committed to strengthening local, high-potential nonprofits and saw an opportunity to work together to put more on the table for Central Texas organizations! At the Philanthropitch event on April 28, 2014, finalists will pitch for two things: 1) a chance to participate in our Accelerator and 2) a piece of $100,000 in cash awards! Four to six of those finalists will be selected to participate in the Accelerator program.

So, how do I apply? Is the same application used to select nonprofits for Philanthropitch and the Accelerator?

Kate: Yes, there’s just one application! As you consider whether your nonprofit should apply, make sure you meet all the selection criteria. Although it’s tempting, don’t apply if you’re just in it for the money. This is about something bigger. Applying nonprofits should be ready and able to participate in the Accelerator for the purpose of dramatically scaling or replicating one of their programs or services. If you feel like you’re ready, I encourage you to apply online by March 31!

How do I know if I’m ready to participate in the Accelerator?

Kate: We’re looking for organizations that are working to solve big community problems in innovative ways. The selection criteria talks about needing to show leadership strength and financial stability, as well as “evidence of current program or service success.” What we mean is:

If you can demonstrate that you 1) have a secure leadership team in place that’s operating from a strategic plan, 2) the program that you want to scale has proven demand and traction with its target clients (those your mission serves), and 3) that you have a business model (or “logic model”) and a revenue base that will support scaling or replicating, you’re probably a good fit!

While we’re on this topic of eligibility, we also got some questions around the location requirement. Our intention with the Accelerator this year is to focus on organizations that are principally located and operating in the Central Texas region.

Getting Selected

How many finalists will there be?

Kate: Eight finalists will be chosen to pitch on-stage at Philanthropitch for the chance to be selected for the Accelerator and for cash awards. Prior to Philanthropitch, 12-15 applicants will be chosen to attend a Pitch Workshop (April 16) where they’ll receive real-time coaching and feedback to help refine their pitch before the big day. Being invited to this Pitch Workshop is a prize in itself and an incredibly useful opportunity, whether or not you get chosen to pitch at Philanthropitch. Last year’s semi-finalists said that they’ve used what they learned about messaging their mission and conveying impact many times over! You can check out our website for more important dates in the application process.

Is it possible to pitch at Philanthropitch but not get picked for the Accelerator or get awarded any money?

Kate: Four to six of the finalists will be selected to participate in the Accelerator. And while it’s technically possible for someone to leave entirely empty handed, that’s unlikely. Our goal is for every finalist at Philanthropitch to walk away with some award. It’s worth mentioning that this is, at a minimum, an incredible opportunity for exposure for finalists as Philanthropitch will be attended by 400 community-minded individuals and funders. That kind of captive audience isn’t something you see every day!

How many people from the applying nonprofit should pitch on stage at Philanthropitch?

Kate: From past experience, we’ve learned that having more than one person pitch doesn’t work because finalists have three to five minutes to make their case. Every second counts. Having said that, more than one person from each semi-finalist organization may attend the Pitch Workshop (April 16) to assist with responding to coaching feedback and polishing the pitch.

Accelerator Program Logistics

Sounds intense! Can you tell me more about the day-to-day of the Accelerator program?

Kate: The curriculum will help you address things like program/service efficiency, evaluation and measurement, target market, competition and barriers, business model and key metrics, and making the case for funders. Be sure your leadership team (2-3 people) is able to participate fully in all Accelerator activities (about 70-80 total hours of work during the months of May through August).  The training is delivered in a cohort setting to foster relationships among nonprofit peers, in addition to one-one-one consulting and mentoring from nonprofit experts and business practitioners. It’s an investment in the future of your organization, so it’s worth the time and energy!

After Graduation

So what happens at the end of the Accelerator program?

Kate: In September, the 2014 class of Accelerator participants will graduate with an opportunity to pitch a second time — this time with a full, “investor-ready” business growth plan in hand! Greenlights will get the right funders in the room, and one stand-out Accelerator graduate will be selected to receive additional transformational, multi-year support from Innovation+ Partners, a group of our supporters dedicated to investing in innovative solutions to big community problems.


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