Setting Innovation Goals at American Cancer Society

By Scott Kirsner |  August 20, 2014

Amit Rikhi joined the American Cancer Society in 2013 — its hundredth year of existence — as Managing Director of Product Innovation. The Atlanta-based non-profit brings in about $1 billion a year in revenue, and collaborates with a “grassroots force” of three million volunteers. It’s also the biggest funder of cancer research, aside from the federal government, spending about $130 million a year to pursue cures and treatments. We spoke with Rikhi earlier this month, and he shared several slides that shed light on his team’s objectives and how they work.

When I first arrived at the American Cancer Society, in 2013, I reported to our Chief Marketing Officer. Now, I report to the President. Over the last ten months, we’ve built up the teams and put tools and processes in place. We are a small team of folks — six, including me — and we’re tasked with developing new revenue streams for ACS.

My three-year plan was, in Year One, stand the thing up and look for two or three new revenue streams. In Year Two, we’ll go full-out on maybe five new revenue streams. And by Year Three, we should be self-funded, based on the revenue we create in Year Two, so we’ll have enough to cover our budget in Year Three and beyond.

This gives you a sense for our focus:

We’re actually doing product development so that we can point to things bringing in money. That model is much more secure than just running the idea funnel.

For us, the key performance indicators are number of ideas, the percent of those ideas we select for funding, and the aggregate return-on-investment of the things we launch. We’re very concerned with identifying which ideas will have the biggest bang for the buck, and if we achieved the ROI goals we set out to achieve.

But a big metric for us is dollars made and dollars saved. One area we’ve been experimenting with is crowdfunding, and looking at ways to create partnerships and run campaigns there. In our first one-week test, we raised about $50,000. This year, we’re doing something to build a Hope Lodge in Salt Lake City, which is a temporary residence that serves people being treated for cancer. We think we may be able to raise $500,000 for that project.

It is critical that we collaborate with other groups at the American Cancer Society, like Marketing Insights Experience & Strategy, and Corporate Relationships & Alliances. You need to have the right people in the room when you’re trying to do something new. You have to try to find the entrepreneurs in pockets of the organization who want to move things forward. You can’t just have the spreadsheets and the PowerPoint decks — you need the people with drive.

I think an innovation group needs a portfolio of singles, doubles, and home runs. And you probably don’t want to be going for home runs in Year One, unless the organization gives you permission to do that. For us, since we’re using donor dollars, we wanted to develop our strategy in a really pragmatic way. We’re happy being more conservative in our first year. Year Three is when I see us starting to go for home runs, which are up in that upper right hand quadrant.