Why We Sprint — and Why Your Nonprofit Should, Too

By implementing sprints, which are an agile methodology, you can transform your social impact organization's project efficiency and team collaboration.

March 31st Articles 7 min read
How we change the orgs we work with doing sprints cosmic website

By Eric Ressler

If your nonprofit struggles to move projects forward in an efficient manner, you aren't alone. All organizations, from major corporations to startups, must contend with this perennial issue. However, with limited budgets and a mix of paid and volunteer labor, social impact organizations often face a bigger challenge.

The good news? The way other industries approach their work can serve as a useful example for nonprofits (and other businesses, too).

Over the last several years, we've adopted agile development "sprints" into our work with nonprofits. In doing so, we haven’t just gained greater efficiencies and deeper collaborations. We have also watched as many of our social impact clients applied the sprint process to their own internal workflows.

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What is a Sprint and Where Does it Come From?

The concept of “sprinting” comes from something called agile development. Agile development has its roots in software development. It represents a departure from the traditional product development process, which is called the waterfall method.

In the waterfall development process, each project moves through a prescribed set of linear phases. A team must fully complete each phase before moving on to the next one. Typically, each phase is capped off by a formal audit or review. In addition, when teams want to revisit an earlier decision, they can’t just go back to the most recently completed phase. Instead, they must typically start over from the beginning.

Waterfall development requires a high degree of planning and certainty at the outset of a project. It makes sense that traditional product development would be structured this way. After all, manufacturing is costly, and the further along you get in the process, the more costly it is to introduce new changes.

Agile development, on the other hand, reflects the reality of software development. Making changes to a code base is far less expensive than retooling a manufacturing mold. As a result, it makes sense that the development process would be much more iterative and incremental. In addition, agile development recognizes the difficulty in knowing a precise set of project requirements at the outset of building a digital product (or designing a website, planning a campaign, or writing a marketing plan). It allows a structured format for teams to jump in more quickly and hammer out the details as they go.

Software developers may have created the agile approach, but other industries have since adopted it. For example, both The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live use agile sprints to produce their creative work in a rapid-fire manner.

Sprints: The Building Blocks of Agile Design

Which brings us back to sprints. Sprints are the building blocks of agile design. A sprint is what it sounds like: a quick burst of activity. In the context of agile design, sprints are week-to-week work cycles. During each sprint, the team moves forward with a prescribed set of tasks. At the end of each sprint, the team meets to review the most recent set of deliverables and plan next steps.

Sprint-based work cycles allow teams to make progress within a highly structured format that still allows for a large degree of flexibility. Rather than waiting to complete an entire phase of the project before reviewing completed work, the team reviews newly completed work on a sprint-by-sprint basis. This allows them to frequently reassess a project’s needs and priorities based on the most recent discoveries and completed tasks.

The Cosmic Approach to Agile: Collaborative Sprints

At Cosmic, we first started doing sprints internally in the context of software development work. Through building numerous websites, web apps, and mobile apps over time, we quickly discovered that the agile approach allowed us to get more work done — and collaborate more closely along the way.

As a creative agency, we have always worked to strike a balance between allowing enough time and flexibility for creativity to flourish and enough structure to get work done efficiently. With the agile approach, we found that we could more easily strike the right balance.

We start all new projects with a kickoff meeting that includes a clear understanding of the project’s scope. The schedule for the project is already worked out and broken out into sprint-sized chunks. We use the kickoff meeting to surface all the data that team members need to get started. If new items come up that are out of scope, we can either choose to extend the schedule and add more sprints or create a "backlog" list of ideas that gets added to over the course of the project. At the the end of the original project, we can then spin up a new project to handle the new scope of work generated from the "backlog" list.

After we kick off a project, we use weekly sprints to provide a consistent, predictable rhythm to our work, both internally and with our social impact clients. Our sprint meetings always take place on Thursdays and include our clients. These meetings give us a chance to present progress, brainstorm, collaborate with clients, and get feedback. We also reflow a project’s schedule based on the most recent information. Then, on Fridays, our clients gather their stakeholders and finalize feedback for our team. Mondays are used to quickly incorporate new client feedback and dive back into our creative work. By mid-week, we are putting the finishing touches on the next set of deliverables. And on Thursday, the cycle begins all over again.

Whereas many design firms wait to do a “big reveal” at the end of each phase of a project (a la the waterfall method), our weekly sprints give way to a much more collaborative and iterative process. The social impact organizations we work with never go more than a week without reviewing the latest iterations of our work.

How Sprints Benefit Culture, Collaboration, and Outcomes

We have found that sprinting offers many benefits. It strengthens our own internal culture, allows for more fruitful collaborations — and makes for stronger outcomes. In addition, we value sprinting because it:

  • Provides a structure for breaking a project up into small, manageable chunks while driving it forward efficiently. The set-in-stone sprint schedule ensures that everyone is pushing toward the same results in an effort to meet each week’s sprint deadline.
  • Creates momentum for everyone involved. There is nothing worse than a project that takes forever. It can be hard for both designers and clients to remain creative and excited over a long period of time. The sprint format keeps everyone moving and allows for smaller tasks to build up quickly into larger progress.
  • Allows our clients to have regular, organized access to their design team. Sprint meetings give us a natural entry point to check in about the bigger picture strategy whenever needed. This allows the “meta” view to remain top of mind rather than getting lost in the day-to-day shuffle. In addition, there is joy in knowing that every week you will have some time to collaborate, share ideas, and evolve a project to the next level.

Bringing the Sprint Model Into Your Social Impact Organization

Across the board, our clients report that they love our weekly sprint format. Many clients even express an interest in continuing the process even after we’ve finished our work together. In fact, some of our clients, such as the Santa Cruz Economic Development Office, have gone on to do just that. In doing so, they have adapted the sprinting process to their own workflows.

Sprints can be used to very productive effect within your social impact organization. For one thing, nonprofits often include a mix of staff and volunteers, and the sprint format offers a framework for projects that helps to build momentum (and expand an organization’s capacity).

You can use sprints for everything from high-level planning to program work to individual campaigns and marketing initiatives. For example, when your organization is working on a campaign, you could use sprints to track progress and gather and maintain a sense of momentum among organizers. On the big-picture planning level, you might use sprints to create an open space for generating new, innovative ideas that can break you out of the same old patterns.

Sprints are a core part of how we work with our clients. Not only do they shape our relationships with clients, but they also result in stronger, more collaborative design work. Want to learn more about how we engage with our social impact clients? We’d love to talk.

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