August 30, 2017

Nonprofit Service Canvas

This is a new tool to help you create a quick proposal for a new service idea.

In many nonprofits, front line workers know what they need to provide the service their clients need. “Making the case” isn’t always obvious in their organization. Likewise, managers get new ideas from their staff, but aren’t sure how to evaluate them fully to bring them up the decision-making hierarchy.

This is especially true when it comes to technology-related ideas.

The Nonprofit Service Canvas is a quick and easy, but comprehensive, way to capture your project idea. It’s useful for both front line workers and organization managers/leaders.

The Nonprofit Service Canvas inspired by the Lean Canvas. Lean Canvas is a 1-page business plan template created by Ash Maurya that helps you deconstruct your idea into it’s key assumptions. It is adapted from Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas and replaces elaborate business plans with a single page business model. Maurya refers to this approach as “1-page business modelling that helps you capture your idea in 20 minutes instead of 20 weeks.”

For nonprofits, think of this as the first step in making a proposal for funding. Each section represents the types of questions you should be asking yourself, which you probably do intuitively. The process helps you take the idea from your head and put it on paper, ultimately helping your managers and superiors answer the questions they need to answer in order to make a decision, allocate precious organizational resources, or submit a funding/grant proposal:

  • What is the problem, gap or issue?
  • How is it being addressed today?
  • What is your solution?
  • Target Group/Client(s)
  • Who is your first key target group/client (early adopters)?
  • How does your solution benefit the client?
  • Why are you uniquely positioned to provide this solution?
  • How will you measure success?
  • How will you outreach / market?
  • What resources are needed to make this proposed solution possible?
  • What security, privacy & confidentiality concerns do you need to address?

Creating your Canvas

The goal is to sketch or snapshot the baseline of your current thinking. Perfection is not the goal.

The idea here is to create your canvas in about 20-40 minutes. You’re not looking to create a complete project proposal at this stage. You’re taking the idea you have and developing it enough so that your manager or supervisor has a good sense of what you’re proposing. It’s also important that you provide a sense of what the service gap or issue is and how you’re proposing to address it. It’s essential that your idea be something that your clients need, which can be measured and supported.

While this canvas approach is quick, it is still rigorous and you’ll need to think it through.

At the end of this process, you should have a canvas that looks like this (PDF) . You’re ready
to get some input from colleagues, test the idea with some clients to help refine it, or move it up to
start a conversation with your manager/supervisor.

I think you’ll find this process helpful to be able to more fully explain your solution and why it’s needed.


Below is a video and script introducing and outlining how to use the Nonprofit Service Canvas, along with a blank Canvas template and an example of a completed Canvas (used for my podcast). This video will show you how to quickly and easily create your proposal canvas. The canvas is broken into a matrix of sections that will be explained as you go. You will be prompted to pause the video to complete a particular section (again, based on Ash’s excellent Lean Canvas video approach).

You can follow the script, or listen to the video as you complete your canvas. Working with my clients, I’ve found that the process works really well if one of you can interview the person with the idea, or create a group discussion about the idea. It seems to have given the person being interviewed a bit more space to just think out loud and not worry about getting the language just right on the first pass. Feedback has been that with someone taking notes, preferably on a shared or projected screen, the discussion and depth of the first draft of the Canvas has been richer. It’s taken a bit longer (say, 45 minutes instead of 20-30 on your own), but less editing/changes after the initial Canvas is created.

I’d recommend you try it this way.

The video is best viewed full screen.

I’d love to hear what you think of this approach and tool.

(The Nonprofit Service Canvas is adapted from Lean Canvas, which was adapted from The Business Model Canvas, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) License)

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