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Big Lessons from the Big Mac: What Nonprofits Can Learn from McDonald’s

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of posts that will examine ten insights Community Wealth Partners has uncovered through our research of and experience with initiatives that have created transformational social change.

If you live in Chicago, you might have noticed a new McDonald’s menu item this month – Mighty Wings.  If you live in Atlanta, Mighty Wings are “so last year.”

While the nutritional content of these wings and McDonald’s role as a social change agent are questionable at best, the social sector can still learn something from McDonald’s about success through experimentation.

McDonald’s, like other fast-food chains, often tests new products in select markets before rolling them out on a large scale.  In other words, McDonald’s consistently changes its approach to success.  While the goal of maximizing profits remains the same, the specific approach to achieve that goal changes, as the environment changes.

The best approach to solving a complex social problem is rarely crystal clear.  After all, if the solution was so obvious, we probably wouldn’t still have the problem.  So in order to make progress against seemingly intractable social problems, nonprofit organizations must continually experiment, learn, and evolve their strategies just as McDonald’s has successfully done for decades.

To achieve its goal, McDonald’s:

  • Experiments with new products in test markets. After success in the Atlanta market, McDonald’s expanded its test run of chicken wings to about 500 restaurants in Chicago. There’s still no plan for national expansion. First more testing to get it right.
  • Learns what works and what doesn’t so the good ideas (like salads) can be spread and the bad ideas (like McLobster or Hulaburger) are left on the cutting room floor.
  • And, evolves to bring on successful new ideas as more permanent menu offerings.

As Amy suggested in her post last week, experimenting, learning, and evolving is critical to achieving social transformation. Like McDonald’s, every organization has (or should have) a defined goal and a specific approach to achieving that goal.  But as the environment around us changes, our approach to that end goal must change as well.

While the specifics are different, nonprofits too can test new ideas on a smaller scale, learn from those tests, and then evolve their broader strategies accordingly.  That way when the failures happen – and they always do – they will be on a smaller scale that you can learn from in order to ultimately have even greater impact.

So while we may not be next in line for the wings, we should all be getting in line to learn from McDonald’s efforts to achieve its goal. Because after all, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we as nonprofits could raise the sign “Over 1 Billion Served”?

What experiences have you had with this experiment, learn, and evolve process?

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About Rachel Hutt

As a consultant, Rachel Hutt leads client engagements, advises and coaches leaders, and, spearheads internal teams to develop solutions and deliverables through research and analysis. Rachel has significant experience working with child-serving organizations focused on education and hunger, as well as organizations striving to improve community health and wellbeing. Rachel’s core expertise is in facilitating strategic planning and theory of change development, as well as supporting leaders in guiding their organizations through this type of change. See Rachel's full bio

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