Perkins School for the Blind CEO on Why the S-Curve Matters for Nonprofits

By Alexander MacDougall |  January 6, 2022

In for-profit companies, the drive to increase revenues often leads to an investment in innovation and experimentation.

But what about nonprofit organizations, where the goal is societal impact rather than rewarding shareholders? How can they create a sense of urgency around innovation?

Dave Power, President & CEO, Perkins School for the Blind

At Massachusetts-based Perkins School for the Blind, founded in 1829, Dave Power has been focused on that question since joining the institution’s board in 2005. (Since 2014, he has been President and CEO.) Power had previously worked as a management consultant, startup CEO, and venture capitalist before taking on the top job at Perkins, which runs educational and career-oriented programs internationally — as well as selling a Braille typewriter that the school developed.

Power makes the case that to increase their revenues and financial support, nonprofits need to stay focused on addressing “unmet customer needs.”

“If you look at Perkins and say, who’s the customer, the customers are children and young adults, their parents, teachers that need training, ministries of education around the world, and school districts we serve. That’s actually a market segmentation challenge.”

Power spoke with InnoLead about how Perkins has approached that challenge; how it seeks to connect tech companies with visually-impaired users; and the importance of understanding the S-curve as you make the case for continued innovation.


Let’s start off with your background. How did you end up at Perkins?

I’m kind of an unlikely president of Perkins. I have a business background in high technology. I was a CEO of a startup, and a marketing executive in some technology companies like Sun Microsystems and RSA Security. After running a startup, I got involved in venture capital and invested in early-stage software companies. I became aware of this phenomenon of how even growth companies stopped growing, if they don’t pay attention to the next problem to solve. I actually took the time to write a book about it, The Curve Ahead. 

In parallel to all this, my oldest of five kids was born blind. On the path to being his parent, we found Perkins, and my son has been in every program from age zero to 22. I experienced those programs as a parent, and like a lot of parents do, I got involved with the school and was on the board of Perkins. I spent time on things like fundraising and bringing online learning to Perkins, which seemed like a natural thing, and I was on the search committee for the next president. There were 11 of us looking for the next president, and the day before the final recommendations, I went to the board and said I’m going to make myself a candidate. I felt that Perkins was kind of a hidden gem, but needed a marketer and a businessperson’s perspective to grow its full potential…

So Perkins inherits its 10th president in 100 years, and this happens to be someone who’s all about innovation and design thinking. It turns out that all of these concepts are extremely applicable to nonprofits. Perkins has four operating groups, and each of them now is focused on its next S-Curve. It’s all been market-driven, by understanding the unmet needs of people who are blind or visually impaired at various stages of their life. 

In addition to that, there is an opportunity to use the latest commercially available information technology to develop new products and services or make existing product services better that are not being attended to for certain reasons. I have a goal to address some of that with the Perkins Innovation Center. 

It’s hard to find people who are blind and visually impaired and who are willing to test your products. So knowing that I thought, OK, Perkins can be the broker here.

You mentioned the innovation center. What’s going on there?

Everyone wants to do innovation now, even the post office, but what does innovation mean in our field? There are people that are blind or visually impaired, and have challenges in employment and education, particularly higher education, and just independent daily living of all kinds. Downloading your course materials if you’re in college, reading or accessing the screen for if you have a job, buying stuff on Amazon, etc.

The problems tend to fall in two areas: information access in any form, and translating to voice or Braille, and then navigation and getting around. There’s a ton of problems to be solved, problems as seemingly simple as, “I need to find my classmates in the cafeteria,” or “I need to fill out a doctor’s form but in a way that ensures my privacy.” Those are real-world problems of people that are blind, that we solved with different ways of doing information access and navigation with the technology available to us. 

[We want to] solve those problems with things like AI, image processing, wearable devices. We have GPS, but indoor navigation is the next frontier of navigation. A lot of people — MIT students, big companies, Apple, Google — they’re people with good intentions who develop things for people that are blind. And the problem is that they have generally never talked to someone who’s blind. It’s a product that’s made without user input in the design process and a lot of testing, and it’s particularly challenging in this field to miss the market, spending a lot of money on a product and then missing the market, because it’s a small population. You really have to thread the needle and get the product right when you get into the market. A lot of companies are missing that. 

There’s a product that came to market that was a device that had sonar in a wristwatch. So it basically emitted a signal that bounced off of [objects] and came back and gave you a vibration on your wrist. The closer you got to objects, the quicker the vibration went. Sounds pretty cool. People could use that. In fact, they went to [the] MassChallenge [startup competition.] We had a donor that put up $50,000 for the first prize. They won the first prize, and then they were like, “How do we get users?” It turned out that people who were blind wore this for a month and took it off. They said, “It seems kind of cool, but I really don’t know what to do with it.” 

It’s hard to find people who are blind and visually impaired and who are willing to test your products. So knowing that I thought, OK, Perkins can be the broker here.

We know the players. We have the dean of the MIT engineering school on our board; we know Apple and IBM and Google — they come and talk to us and ask us questions; we know consumer appliance companies. Companies that make refrigerators and stoves with touchscreens instead of knobs are a disaster for blind people. So our value add isn’t that we know about artificial intelligence better than the innovators, but we know how to find the user community that can guide the development of a wearable device…that’s usable for a person who is blind.

I believe the innovation process, public or private, is about uncovering an unmet need of a customer that’s worth solving.

Is there any difference on how to apply innovation in nonprofits, versus how it’s done at tech startups and large companies? 

What’s common about the two is there is a customer and there is a search for an unmet need. I believe the innovation process, public or private, is about uncovering an unmet need of a customer that’s worth solving. If you’re in the private sector, it’s worth solving for bigger and bigger dollars, depending on the market size. In a mission-driven organization, it’s worth solving in terms of social impact, but it starts not in the lab — it’s uncovering this unmet problem. 

If you look at Perkins and say, who’s the customer, the customers are children and young adults, their parents, teachers that need training, ministries of education around the world, and school districts we serve. That’s actually a market segmentation challenge. They’re each different, and we have a portfolio of products and services for each of them. You may be aware that we have a mechanical typewriter that types Braille. It was invented in the 1950s. It’s still the leading device of its kind in the world. It’s not a growing market. That’s a mature market, but it’s very, very needed today. Electronic devices will be the next generation of what happens in Braille. 

So what’s different about the private sector versus the public sector? In the private sector, you sort of uncover things like, people are frustrated with getting cabs, then ask what if we had a shared system, and people go, “Oh yeah, jump on it, that’s a great idea.” In the non-profit sector, you kind of get a confused look, like, “We’re going to do something with that? And how would we even do that?” I’ll give you an example — something that I started that didn’t exist at all at Perkins, but it was built [to address] one of the biggest problems in our field, which is unemployment. Adults in the US who are blind or visually impaired, only about 30 or 40 percent of them are employed. There’s a bunch of reasons behind it, more than we’d want to go into here. But it’s tackle-able, so we said, well, let’s do something about it. 

We did a whole research and design thinking process. We ended up designing an eight-week training program in customer service skills, called Career Launch. We take young adults and we train them in that area, because you don’t have to be able to see to deliver a great customer experience over the phone. There’s a tremendous need in the workforce for people who have these skills. 

But the process of doing that was new for everybody. Inside Perkins, people were saying, “Where are we going to get the money?” I need the equivalent of seed capital. I’ve got to get some money from the board. I’m going to raise some money and charge some fees. We market this to employers, so companies like Dunkin’ Donuts and Imprivata have been employers of our graduates. The difference for me has been to get the Perkins community to understand that there’s a set of concepts like design thinking, that are a powerful way to get us to launch new ways to serve and to solve old problems.

An example of the “S-Curve” applied to the company Apple. The Y-axis shows the revenue a new product generates, while the X-axis is the length of time a product is out. After a boom in sales following a successful launch, the product’s sales eventually plateau, creating the “S-Curve” shape. Companies like Apple are able to keep growing by continuing to create new products that have their own S-Curve. (Graphic courtesy of Dave Power.)

How do you measure ‘S-curve’ growth in a nonprofit organization?

The Y-axis, instead of being dollars, becomes social impact. Social impact is different in different nonprofits. If you’re the Boys and Girls Club, you measure the number of kids in the community that actually join as members. If you’re helping women in Africa to become employed, you measure the number of women or the number of teachers we trained in Kenya, the number of students or the number of teachers that are taking our online classes. Those numbers do have the behavior of the S-curve. You have new programs, they take off, they mature, they decline. It’s not as easy as dollars and cents, because you can plot those a lot more [easily.] But if you look at social impact, you indeed can see how you’re doing. 

The Perkins School for the Blind, or what people think of the Perkins School, is a very legacy part of what we do, and what we started in 1829. We do have in Watertown, Mass. a brick-and-mortar school on 40 acres. It’s beautiful. We take up to 200 students from local communities and we serve them. We charge tuition, and we play a role in their career development. It’s like our teaching hospital or center of innovation, where we’re hands on with kids and developing our tools.

…If you look at social impact, you indeed can see how you’re doing. 

But 95 percent of kids with a disability are in public school. We can’t call ourselves the leader unless we’re out in public schools. Our whole growth model is penetration of the public school process. We serve something like 800 kids in public schools in New England, hands-on, through itinerant teachers that go to the public schools. We’re the leading online trainer of teachers for the visually impaired in the US, through a program we started when I was on the board in 2011. 

There’s a new form of blindness that actually is a neurological disorder related to premature birth, called cortical visual impairment. It is creating an educational crisis, because no school system, no teacher, is prepared for it. They don’t really know how to diagnose it or how to work with the kids. Innovation here is critical, because if you work with a kid with cortical visual impairment early enough, you can actually improve functional vision. If CVI was the pandemic, we would be the Centers for Disease Control. There’s no CDC equivalent or central organization in the United States, who has taken it upon themselves to create a response to what’s now the cause of blindness in 60 percent of kids that are born blind today. That’s a new role for Perkins.

We expect CVI to become the major form of blindness we serve. Both on our Massachusetts campus, where we deliver services directly with a large staff, and across the country where we use a more leveraged model of online teacher training, parent community development and the creation of new teaching frameworks. The first thing we launched is It’s a website now that allows a parent anywhere in the US who says, “Oh my God, my child has CVI, what is that,” to go to CVInow and connect to a national network of parents that Perkins is curating and working with, and will ultimately serve with products and services. This is another S-curve that’s driven by the fact that the world has changed.

A TEDx Talk that Power gave in 2014.