Nonprofit Firm Guides Groups to Success through Innovation

Article excerpt

After five years in business, Allison Fine acknowledges she still has trouble explaining to those outside the nonprofit arena exactly what her company does.

"People want a product," said Ms. Fine, 33. But InnoNet, a nonprofit firm that helps other nonprofits improve their bottom lines, sells something intangible: evaluations of organizations and programs.

"What we do is about people, and you can't put people in a cash register, and you can't put them in a test tube," said Ms. Fine, a former assistant director of program development at the Stanford Research Institute.

InnoNet is not, as many assume, an Internet company; the name is short for Innovation Network Inc. Ms. Fine founded the District-based firm in her home in 1992 to provide nonprofit groups with answers to problems by linking them with similar agencies around the country encountering similar problems.

Having trouble maintaining volunteer enthusiasm? Call InnoNet, and Ms. Fine will put you in touch with other nonprofit agencies facing the same issue.

But over time, Ms. Fine discovered that her clients, which range from the Baltimore Jewish Council to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, needed more guidance in evaluating the effects of their programs. Today, InnoNet's main focus is monitoring nonprofit programs and offering straightforward opinions about how those programs can be made more relevant.

"Our job is to help other nonprofits measure their success," Ms. Fine said.

InnoNet's consultants measure success or failure by working with a nonprofit group's staff from the time a program is launched.

The firm is working with the District-based Alliance for Justice, an association that lobbies on behalf of nonprofits, in creating a program that encourages young people to become more active in their communities. By being there from the beginning, InnoNet's consultants can closely monitor the training program and recommend ways it can be improved, said Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice.

That hands-on approach has made InnoNet successful, said Kathy Whelpley, acting executive director at the Freddie Mac Foundation in McLean. …