Five Ways to Inspire Nonprofit Innovation

Many not-for-profit organizations have been hanging on for dear life for the past year. But the days of survival mode are coming to an end. Now, nonprofit leaders need to be innovative to position their organizations for future growth. In other words, if you're not moving forward, you're moving backward.

But how do you cultivate a culture of innovation in a nonprofit where it doesn't traditionally exist? There's no foolproof plan, but five techniques can help get you and your staffers in the right mindset.

1. Define "Innovation"

Don't confuse "innovation" with technology. Although innovation these days often involves technology, it can be manifested in many other ways. Instead of, for example, immediately looking at new hardware or software that other organizations are buying, define what innovation means for your organization. Then share it with employees and let them help you find solutions to challenges or ways to optimize opportunities.

fostering a culture of innovation

For example, you might define innovation in your personnel manual, detail a few reasons why innovation is important and ensure that all managers are on board. Be sure to diffuse the perception that innovation is only for IT or creative positions. Highlight several ways staffers can participate and give them the time and space to engage in innovated projects.

2. Prioritize Creative Thinking

Let your whole organization know how vital innovation is to operations. Start with short conversations, then scale up to lunch meetings or off-site retreats where you might brainstorm ideas or watch an inspiring documentary. In discussions, talk about how many charities are partnering in creative ways with for-profit businesses (including technology companies).

For instance, Greenpeace created a GPS whale-tracking feed so that its supporters could follow the marine mammals in real time. The campaign resulted in donations of over $120,000. Newer nonprofit Define American, whose mission is to change the cultural conversation surrounding immigration, has partnered with Comedy Central and enlisted the support of comedians. And, of course, during the pandemic, thousands of charities migrated to online fundraisers, including auctions and socially interactive galas.

These solutions may not be appropriate for your nonprofit and mission. But talking about them should help get your staffers' creative juices flowing.

3. Make Time and Provide Space

It's hard for employees to be innovative when they're constantly scrambling to get their regular work done. If you expect staffers to develop innovative solutions (as opposed to just talking about them), you may need to give them time during regular workdays or even authorize internal "sabbaticals" to focus on these projects.

Also think about the space staffers need to innovate. If you have the space, dedicate a room to innovative thinking and development. Fill it with imaginative prompts and tools such as whiteboards and markers, Post-it Notes and index cards.  

4, Follow Through

It's one thing to talk about fostering innovation. It's another to "walk the walk." If employees deliver good ideas but your leadership doesn't act on them — to explore or test them, at the very least — creativity is likely to dry out.

If you're seriously committed to innovation you need to allocate funds from your budget to these projects. Of course, this can be risky because projects may ultimately fail. So make sure you have support from your board, as well as the donors and grant makers who help finance such initiatives.

Follow up successful tests and trials with analysis and any necessary modifications. It's also important to know when to abandon unsuccessful projects.

5. Reward Employee Innovation

You can help spur staffers to innovate by providing rewards. Start with giving successful innovators credit within your organization, as well as publicizing it in external communications, such as your newsletter, and during your organization's meetings and fundraisers.

Also consider providing such incentives as cash bonuses or extra vacation time. And include participation in innovation initiatives when evaluating employee performance and making promotion decisions.

Kick-starting Your Campaign

It isn't easy to change an organization that's accustomed to doing things the way they've always been done. But one way to kick-start an innovation initiative is to create a contest. Offer a valuable prize to the staffer who comes up with the best viable idea over the course of a year or other time period. To build enthusiasm, schedule activities around the contest and hold an awards ceremony at its conclusion.

Contact us for more suggestions about fostering innovation in your not-for-profit. We can help you vet new partnerships, explore novel funding models, and consider other financial, operational and technological solutions.

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