Building Sustainable Nonprofits Through Innovative Idea Systems
Covid was like a powerful earthquake that opened a crack in our understanding of organizations. It is forcing a new discussion on the “Future of Work”. It forced us to explore new ways of working while solving the challenges of serving the public. It forced change. People showed they can work from home or in an office. Our tool kit expanded to use Zoom and Teams.
What did not change, however, is non-profits need people to innovate while they solve problems, make decisions, deal with change, and collaborate. We need to create opportunities out of the challenges that are constantly thrown at us.
I worked with non-profits living in several countries. Some reinvented their services and programs to better serve their stakeholders while others really struggled to do so. I found that the most successful explored the concepts of improvement and innovation and shaped them for the unique nature of non-profit management. It was less about technology and more about building the skills of staff and the capacity of the organization to innovate.
A project in Singapore involved writing an innovation guide for staff that included this useful definition. It highlighted two key elements that are crucial to understand:
“Innovation is more than improvement. Improvements are important but innovations are like a quantum improvement that breaks new ground to create value in new ways.”
This clearly highlights two issues:
1. To create value in new ways
Creating value in new ways links to results, not just processes. Too many people think innovation is about job titles, labs, processes, and technology. Some use terms like innovation ideas. In practice, innovation is something you only see in retrospect. You look back at the challenge, and your solution, and judge the results. You discover they achieved results beyond expectations in meaningful ways for stakeholders. Going forward, you are working on solving problems and creating opportunities.
2. Innovation is more than improvement
This definition distinguishes between improvement and innovation. Avoid the temptation to call all changes “innovation” when they are clearly not. This gives you two useful tools to improve your systems. It helps to target where innovative solutions are needed. You always face two options:
- Improve: Most change in the non-profit sectors should be focused on improving current systems and processes. There are many management tools to help detail current processes and look for enhancements.
- Innovate: There are opportunities to innovate different solutions that may become innovations that create value in new ways. Value can be defined by revenues, additional service benefits for stakeholders, etc.
To be truthful, you have a third option: do nothing. Sometimes this is a good option if your review suggests change is not needed.
I laughed when I saw a cartoon with a person approaching the staff “suggestions” wall. On the left, the person could drop ideas into a suggestion box. It was labeled, “in-the-box ideas”. These could be useful improvements. Next to the box was a shelf labeled, “out-of-the-box ideas”. These ideas could become innovations. The witty cartoon makes an interesting distinction; ideas that improve and ideas that innovate could be separated and evaluated differently as they are two approaches.
When I lived in New Zealand, I joined the Post Office on a special team to improve services. Over time, we saw the potential for new service models. We developed new skills to use service design tools to sketch out new service models. We piloted new services with users to test if they created useful value for customers. We used design thinking long before it became popular.
What both require is a strategy to build the skills and capacity of people and the organization to innovate. It is crucial for all non-profits to improve the skills of staff for problem-solving, generating solutions, judging solutions, and turning them into actions.
Creating “challenges” as opportunities to innovate
The need to grow and innovate should be an important part of every job. All staff invest time to solve the problems of stakeholders. Everyone can contribute.
I spent five years with the Ontario Soccer Association. Looking back, it was very innovative in creating value for members. Over time, we created three strategies to focus this effort.
1. Review one program each year
Each year we picked one membership service or program to review and reinvent. We looked at the program and explored:
• What’s working well?
• What’s not working well?
• What’s missing or could be added?
It forced us to review the past assumptions and strategies that went into the original plan. This always led to new ideas.
2. Create one revenue source each year
Each year we wanted to add a revenue source. We invested time to consider how we could benefit members and add revenues in the process. Some of these ideas were:
• A magazine to communicate with members allowed sponsorship and advertising revenues.
• Many coaches were teachers. They were ideal to deliver a Summer Soccer Camps program. There was a small fee for participants and each child received a T-shirt and soccer ball which was sponsored.
• To improve the management of local clubs, we started a yearly conference and trade show with workshops for local club volunteers. It was a revenue source to showcase suppliers to the sport. Conferences fees were very low to recover the event’s costs.
3. Creating time to innovate
A challenge for all non-profits is using staff time well to deliver their programs and to step back from this daily effort to consider the future. Some ideas we created:
- Idea meetings – every week or two, we held idea meetings. These were informal to discuss two topics. The first was sharing ideas people developed in their work. The second was sharing problems people faced in their work. Staff would explain a situation to the team and then ask for ideas. This was highly productive.
- Monthly challenges – the Executive Director often picked a challenge for the month to improve some aspect of our services. This was presented to staff as a challenge to consider for the month. Discussions were encouraged to look for new ideas.
- Quarterly reviews – this was a more strategic review to invest time to review our services from two perspectives:
- Review the past 3 months – review what worked well and what could be improved for the following year.
- Preview the next 3 to 6 months – what events or seasonal challenges are coming up that need more attention.
The post-Covid period is the ideal time to review non-profit staff management, services, and the systems of the organization. The need to create opportunities from the challenges that will constantly come up is the secret to success.