How to Foster a Culture of Innovation at Your Nonprofit

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Every nonprofit says it values innovation. Few really act like it.

In the State of Good 2018 report, nonprofit leaders and practitioners scored the sector a measly 2.9 out of 5 for innovation.

(click here to download the full State of Good report)

Our world is changing rapidly. Nonprofits must take seriously the job of making meaningful change and discovering previously untapped possibilities (innovation) in order to have a sustainable organization and impact.

The good news: nonprofits exist to make meaningful change, so, innovation is at the core of who you are.

A true culture of innovation happens when the entire organization, not just its leadership, structures itself around the commitment to transform ideas into new and better products, services and ways of doing things … all to better fulfill its mission.

 

From field programs and fundraising, to volunteer care and donor management, every part of your organization should be encouraged to innovate.

Here are five ways you can foster an innovative culture at your nonprofit.

 

1. Define & Communicate

Many nonprofits assume innovation has to be expensive or tech-related.

So, the idea of “innovation” can sometimes get dismissed from the start.

However, innovation can come in the form of iterative change in any area of the organization. It doesn’t always require high costs or new technology to make meaningful change or even radical breakthroughs.

Re-defining “innovation” may be required if your organization is closed to the idea. In some cases, choosing another word altogether may be necessary.

What are you actually looking for?

“We want to innovate!” isn’t nearly enough. Provide a well-understood target and a strategy to hit it.

A succinct vision statement from leadership communicates to the staff that your organization embraces and places structure around ideation, risk, experimentation and even failure as together you continually reinvent yourselves. Put the statement on the wall, on business cards, on your website. That kind of commitment will not only fire up your people, it also will make others want to work there.

Actively refute the idea that innovation is only for the tech team or “creatives.” In a healthy organization, innovation happens in all departments and at all levels.

In our recent interview with Charles Lee, he encourages nonprofits to bring people from different teams and backgrounds together, saying “Seemingly unrelated elements can spark problem solving. Engineers solves problems differently than artists. Tap into brilliance that is already in your team”.

Actionable ideas:

  • Write out a definition of innovation that works in your organization.
  • Write out a few key reasons that innovation is important, even urgent, for your organization.
  • Ensure other leaders in the organization are on board, and understand how innovation can happen in every department.
  • Plan 7 to 10 specific opportunities over the next year to remind yourself and your entire team about this vision, definition, and value of innovation.

2. Prioritize Inspiration

Make your workplace an energy field for ideas.

Talk frequently about innovation of all kinds, whether or not it directly relates to what your organization does. Start water-cooler conversations about self-driving cars, private rockets, smart speakers, whatever.

A creative mindset is contagious, and it jumps boundaries.

Push books — there are scads of business books about innovation, but also remember the inspirational power of a great story.

Examples: Rocket Men by Robert Kurson chronicles the finish line of the space race and mankind’s first trip to the moon. The Man Who Fed the World examines the life of Norman Borlaug, the scientist and humanitarian who Bill Gates once said, “probably saved more lives than anyone in history.” And share movies like The Social Network, Moneyball, Jerry Maguire and Joy. They’re all about relentless innovators.

Actionable ideas:

  • Schedule a lunch break movie time, order in food, and pick out an inspiring movie to watch as a team. Schedule 30 minutes of discussion immediately after the movie and see where it takes you.
  • Over lunch or at your next staff meeting, ask your team what brands and nonprofits inspire them, and why.
  • Share the State of Good report with your team and ask them if they feel like your organization is “innovative” and why, or why not.

3. Make Margin & Start an Innovation Lab

Make space, time and budget for doing something different… important, non-urgent and/or related to the future.

Set aside 10% of everyone’s work time for innovation and require they work on something that isn’t related to immediate needs. Google doubles this, earmarking 20 percent of workers’ time for anything they want to work on that contributes to the company’s goals. The idea is people will be creative when turned loose with space, time and a mandate.

One approach to achieve the 10% goal is to set aside one morning or afternoon each week for an innovation lab — which sounds formal but actually just brands and lends structure to what your team might already be doing informally.

 

Find space somewhere in the office, as large as a conference room or as small as a box, that is dedicated to sparking ideas.

(photo by Patrick Perkins)

 

If you need more direction, we like IDEO’s Field Guide to Human Centered Design, or the book Creative Confidence by David Kelley and Tom Kelley.

Actionable ideas:

  • After sharing your vision about innovation (see #1 above), strongly recommended that every staff member spend 10 to 20% of their time working on new, longer term, or out-of-the-box ideas.
  • Pick a location in the office to dedicate to innovation. Fill it with physical prompts for the imagination. A whiteboard, inspiring magazines, markers, post-it notes, and good music should get you started.
  • Schedule out a recurring 4-hour block of time for every Friday afternoon called “Innovation Lab” and invite the whole organization to it.

Click here to download the full State of Good 2018 Report and get more nonprofit insights.

4. Build Structure & Invest Resources

Momentum happens when good ideas start becoming new products, services and processes. When they don’t, smart people think: “If nobody’s actually putting money into these ideas, then why bother?”

To let people know you’re serious, risk real money on ideas that could fail. Develop a process to select and refine ideas and then tap people to manage projects, create and test prototypes and ultimately launch and assess.

Try out a quarterly “Shark Tank” style presentation of ideas, or a monthly innovation roundtable.

(photo by Christian Fregnan)

Maybe you need to assign an “innovation champion” or create a small innovation task force to help hold the leadership and organization accountable.

Without structure, remarkable ideas for change will go unrealized.

Actionable ideas:

  • Pick a number for your budget that you can dedicate to producing new and innovative ideas. Propose it at the next budget meeting.
  • Invite a team of people or one individual to be an “innovation champion” and help them realize that their job is to encourage innovation in every staff member, and every area of the organization.
  • Ask your innovation champions to put together a proposal that provides structure for how someone can submit an idea, evaluate it, and propose it for funding.
  • Ask your innovation champions for a plan to move toward this desired culture change.

5.Celebrate Successes & Failures

Reward innovative behavior and it will spread.

Celebrate new products, services and methods, and not just with cake and punch. Provide true incentives through restructured performance reviews and bonuses for those who innovate enthusiastically.

Go a step further and celebrate failures that taught your organization something valuable. Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor said: “I would rather fail spectacularly than succeed minimally.”

If you find fictional super-criminals less than inspiring, try this quote from author John C. Maxwell in Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones for Success — “If you are succeeding in everything you do, then you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough. And that means you’re not taking enough risks. You risk because you have something of value you want to achieve.”

 

Innovation is a long term game. And a culture change doesn’t happen overnight.

But, if your mission is important, you can’t afford to stick with the status quo.

Innovation is no longer optional.

Actionable ideas:

  • Look for innovative examples in the history of your company and tell these stories to your team.
  • Find a way to recognize someone, in the next week, who is already thinking in an innovative way or is willing to take risks.
  • Create an innovation contest with serious rewards and invite your entire team to participate.
  • Look for opportunities to recognize and celebrate big ideas that fell a little short. Pull out everything you learned from those experiences and invite others to do the same. Just be careful not to publicly label a person or project as a “failure”.

Give us your thoughts …

What else have you done to spark innovation in your culture?

What are your barriers?

What nonprofits are doing innovation well?

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  • Look for innovative examples in the history of your company and tell these stories to your team.
  • Find a way to recognize someone, in the next week, who is already thinking in an innovative way or is willing to take risks.
  • Create an innovation contest with serious rewards and invite your entire team to participate.
  • Look for opportunities to recognize and celebrate big ideas that fell a little short. Pull out everything you learned from those experiences and invite others to do the same. Just be careful not to publicly label a person or project as a “failure”.

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