3 min Read
September 30, 2011

Innovate and thrive or stagnate and die

Big Duck

Innovate or die? Sounds terrifying! Thankfully, it isn’t necessarily as frightening as it sounds.

Last week was 501 Tech NYC, and this month it was all about innovation. David J. Neff, who together with Randall C. Moss wrote The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age (and who was kind enough to give us Ducks access to a preview copy of the book earlier this year), gave a great presentation about why innovation is important for nonprofits and how to set about becoming more innovative.

David covered a lot of great ground (both in the presentation and in the book), but for me the top takeaway is (drum roll, please):

Innovation is essential and achievable for nonprofits, even though it sounds fancy-pants and scary.

If you’ll allow me to expand further (doing my best to summarize David and Randall):

Innovation is essential

The world in which your nonprofit operates and the people you serve are constantly changing, and changing fast. You need to keep up with those changes–or, better, outpace them–if you want to stay effective and relevant. Coming up with new ways to achieve your mission, new ways to serve and delight your constituents, and new ways to engage people in what you do (all otherwise known as innovation) is the key to changing with the times and staying in business.

Innovation is achievable

Innovation sounds like something that only big businesses with huge budgets and dedicated armies of research and development staff can afford to spend time on. But it doesn’t have to be. Relatively simple systems and processes can lay the foundation for becoming a more nimble and innovative organization. The book lays it all out in much greater (and clearer) detail, but some of the simple steps that David and Randall suggest to become a more innovative organization are:

  • Encourage your staff to regularly take time out from their day-to-day work to think about how your organization could improve. Being quick, efficient, and productive is great for some things (like payroll and donation processing), but efficiency isn’t best when it comes to being creative. Without creative thinking, it’s difficult to innovate, so it’s well worth giving staff time to think creatively about their work and rewarding people when they make creative suggestions.
  • Do something with those ideas. Creative new ideas aren’t any good if you don’t do anything with them. David and Randall point out that the biggest part of being an innovative organization isn’t having creative ideas but being able to act on good ideas when you find them. To be able to do that, you need a system for reviewing new ideas, sorting the good from the bad, testing the good ones, and then putting the successful ones into practice. In his presentation, David gave this very simple (and tried and true) process for doing just that:
    • Intake. Have a system for collecting people’s ideas for improvement–even a simple comments box or online form will do.
    • First review. Set up a team (made up of people from different departments and levels within the organization) that meets regularly to review the ideas that come in and sort the good from the bad. I know, I know–the last thing you want to do is set up a new committee, but David made the great point that an objective review team is important, or ideas tend not to get past someone’s immediate (and already overworked) manager.
    • Business case. When the committee finds a good idea, approach the person it came from and ask them to write a business case outlining why (and how) it should be implemented.
    • Development and testing. If the business case is sound, dedicate a small budget to running a pilot project to see if the business case holds in real life.
    • Launch the ideas that work. And finally, if testing is successful, move beyond the test phase and launch the new program, process, structure, or product for real.

Not so scary after all, right? Sure, you may have a way to go before you get all of those things in place and running smoothly, but when it’s all laid out simply like that, suddenly innovation (and thriving) seems a lot more achievable.

For more insights from David’s presentation (including the six current trends that are already shaping the future and that you need to get on top of now), check out SankyNet’s summary of tweets from the evening. And for more great tips and advice to help encourage innovation in your nonprofit, check out David and Randall’s book.