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Nonprofits Innovate and Thrive


The last two years have created unprecedented challenges for nonprofit organizations. Pandemic conditions caused fundraising event cancellations, interrupted direct services, and made raising donations difficult. The result too often seen: pay cuts, staff layoffs and furloughs at too many nonprofit organizations, while demand for services has grown.


Such challenging times demand more innovative approaches to nonprofit work. Fortunately, Central Ohio has organizations that help nonprofit leaders and their teams overcome these challenges. This month’s feature is with one of those firms: CauseImpact which helps nonprofits develop new strategies and earned revenue through social enterprise.


To learn more about how nonprofits are finding their way through these difficult times, I interviewed CauseImpact’s Instigating Partner, Sean McGee. I also got a few insights from innovative Columbus nonprofit leaders who CauseImpact has worked with to help further their social enterprises: LC Johnson, Zora’s House Founder and CEO, and Colin McGinnis, CEO at South Side Early Learning.


Seth Cramer: “Nonprofit” and “Innovation” are two words that we don’t always hear in the same sentence. How do you get traditional nonprofit leaders to try new things?


Sean McGee: Nonprofit leaders are always trying new things. Their organizations frequently improvise, because conditions in their communities and among the people they serve are in constant flux. Look at how much the world has changed since February of 2020. All sorts of organizations – like those who supply food and shelter; those who support diversity, equity, inclusion, and opportunity; and those who educate our children – have had to adopt radically new operating models to keep serving our communities. The challenge is not resistance to change. It’s about how to make the most strategic, effective changes and how to build more resilient and sustainable ways to serve.


We founded CauseImpact on the premise that change is constant, and on Peter Drucker’s observation that “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” We help nonprofit organizations create greater mission impact by developing new streams of earned revenue. We often help them develop new social enterprises by redefining and repackaging what they’re good at for new customers who can pay for their products or services. It’s a process of applying proven tools and processes to reinvent their programs or even their core business models, to simultaneously drive positive change and generate new revenue. We do a lot of this work through our flagship program Innovation Catalyst, which is entering its ninth year.


Seth: I’ve seen some of your Innovation Catalyst (iCat) members pitch their ideas, but I’ve never really gotten a look behind the scenes. I know that iCat is an intensive nine-month process, and that it ends with a public pitch competition. What does the whole experience look like?


Sean: iCat, as we like to call it, is like an Executive MBA program or the Leadership Columbus program with one key difference. While, like those programs, it is a cohort model that integrates group training and consultation with individual support, each of our participating organizations is working on its own unique situation, challenges, and opportunities from Day One.


Each organization pulls together a task force—called an Impact Team—to collaborate on developing new approaches to earned revenue and mission impact. All participants get firsthand experience in vetting ideas, conducting research, developing business plans, and learning the art of delivering an effective pitch. As you mentioned, we finish the program with a pitch competition to a panel of expert judges who award cash prizes to help participants launch their new social enterprises.


Seth: LC and Colin, what was the Innovation Catalyst experience like for you and your team?



LC Johnson: When Zora’s House first came to iCat in 2019, we were focused primarily on a new program that we were trying to launch. It’s a residential incubator program. But, through the Catalyst program, not only were we able to focus on and launch that program, but we actually got support to think about our entire business model as a whole. It completely transformed our thinking around how we operate as a social enterprise and how we continue to grow our impact.


Colin McGinnis: The CauseImpact team was great for South Side Early Learning

to work with. They challenged ideas, which can be frustrating at times; but it’s awesome for us – folks in the field of education that really, more often than not, end up in a space where it’s just a bunch of like minds around the table. To have a business perspective, and to think through the financial aspects, and the modeling aspects, and the pure “How to go to market” question was an awesome opportunity and experience. We were super fortunate to work with them.


Seth: As a serial entrepreneur and as an entrepreneurship instructor at OSU, I know how hard it can be to get from idea to launch. How many of these iCat participants make it all the way to launch?


Sean: We’ve worked with almost 70 nonprofit organizations in iCat over the past nine years, in Ohio, Tennessee, and Indiana. Nearly 80% of those organizations have launched or are currently in the process of launching. We’re proud of that track record, and enormously proud to have worked with so many great organizations that have the vision, talent, and the sheer persistence to bring their visions to life.


Seth: That’s an impressive metric. I hope more Cbus nonprofits can drive that kind of success! I see that you’re gearing up for another cohort in Columbus in 2022, and that applications are open.


Sean: Yes, we’re launching soon. To learn more and apply for the 2022 Columbus Cohort of Innovation Catalyst, nonprofit leaders can just follow this link.


Seth: I’m excited to see which entrepreneurial nonprofit leaders and organizations are chosen for the next round and learn how to integrate social enterprise into their business model to achieve earned revenue and increase impact!


For more information, visit www.causeimpact.com/icat or connect with CauseImpact on facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.



Seth Cramer, MBA, is the Board Chair of SocialVentures, Co-Owner of Phoenix Bats and an ever-aspiring entrepreneur. When not noodling on how to better support SEOs, he teaches entrepreneurship at OSU, while working on his next entrepreneurial endeavor. Seth enjoys hanging out with his Cocker Spaniel…and his wife and cat…in Old Worthington, annually falling for “this is the Browns year!” and eating at the Crazzy Greek near Polaris.





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