Why and How Nonprofits Should Embed Innovation as a Regular Practice

Most businesses in the corporate world understand the need to innovate. Markets change. Consumers change. What works today may not work tomorrow. Businesses know that if they are to remain relevant, innovation is essential.
Yet, too many nonprofits have forgotten the importance of innovating, if it was ever a part of the organization’s practice at all. The status quo is carried forth year after year, both externally in the services and programs delivered and internally in the processes and systems used for daily operations. This neglect of innovation is often due to one of these factors:
  • Innovation is sometimes associated with a focus on profits.
  • Nonprofit staff are typically under-resourced and overworked. Innovation can seem like a low-priority luxury.
  • Funding may initially be tied to a heartfelt vision. Nonprofits may forget that the funding could disappear if the organization ceases to remain relevant in a changing marketplace.
  • Innovation often requires change, and change is hard.
Despite the challenges, there are many reasons for nonprofit leaders to embrace innovation as a regular practice in their organization. For example:
  • Society is constantly changing. Even though nonprofits in the human services sector focus on social problems that have been around a long time, the solutions that may have worked in the past will not always be the best to meet the needs of the same consumers. Embracing innovation as a regular practice ensures that nonprofits are adapting to the needs of their consumers in the context of broader social changes.
  • It is easy to become complacent if the organization has a stable, multi-year funding source. However, the reality is that funding is a competitive process. By embedding innovation in the organization as a regular practice instead of cramming it in right before the next bid for funding, a nonprofit can ensure that it remains relevant and competitive in the eyes of funding sources.
  • Embracing innovation can help keep staff engaged and excited about their work. Innovation can offer them the opportunity to think more creatively, build new skills, and feel they are making a bigger impact with real-world social problems.
So how can a nonprofit organization embed innovation as a regular practice? Here are three ways your organization can get started today:
  1. Build an internal culture of innovation. Have a “suggestions” box in a highly visible location in a physical office. If your nonprofit’s operations are virtual, use surveys or other collaboration tools for staff to submit new ideas. Then regularly incorporate these suggestions into strategic planning so that staff know their voices are being heard. Encourage all staff to use a certain portion of their work hours, even an hour every week, to brainstorm and develop new innovations. These innovations could include changes in the services or programs offered, new ways of delivering services to consumers, or new processes and tools for internal use in the organization. If needed, provide incentives for staff to participate and share their ideas.
  2. Convene regular meetings that have the sole purpose of innovation. For example, this could be an annual retreat to reconnect the team with the organization’s vision, brainstorm new innovations for the year ahead, and create a plan for developing and launching these new ideas. Follow the retreat up with at least three or four meetings throughout the year to measure progress against the innovation plan and course-correct if needed.
  3. Build an external culture of innovation that includes your consumers, funders, and collaboration partners. Let these groups know that your nonprofit values innovation as a regular way to become ever-better at meeting the changing needs of consumers. Regularly invite thoughtful feedback and new ideas from each of these groups.
And, in the spirit of innovation, I welcome feedback and conversation about these ideas. If you believe your nonprofit is an innovator in its space, what is working well? How could you become even more innovative? If you believe your nonprofit has become stagnant, what are some of the challenges you see that keeps the organization from embracing innovation?

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