Nonprofit Innovation: Creating Spaces

by Eileen A. Ruby Setti
Ruby & Associates

Innovation cannot take place without creating the spaces necessary for it to happen.

My paternal grandmother stood as tall as the average fifth grader. The daughter of an Iowa farmer, a teacher, mother of four and the wife of a small businessman, Grandma was wicked smart. She was certainly intelligent enough to earn a teaching degree from Iowa State Teacher’s College in the mid-1930s, but what set Dorothy Ruby apart was her ability to creatively solve problems.

For example, late one evening when my father was 15 years old, he was attempting to hoist the engine out of his prized 1947 Ford. He was making such a racket in the garage that my grandmother investigated the source of the commotion. The engine was two inches short of clearing the car because the low garage ceiling prevented the hoist from lifting the engine any higher. The engine was stuck, and my father was stumped.

Grandma wiped her hands on her apron and assessed the situation. She asked her son how the hoist operated and what he had already tried to solve the problem, and listened intently to his explanation. Thinking for a few seconds, she smiled and gave him two directives: Let some air out of the front tires to gain enough clearance for the hoist to free the engine from the car—and stop making such a loud ruckus!

Obstacles to Nonprofit Innovation
The word innovation is used often in today’s economy. Companies must innovate—or strategically predict changes in their market and efficiently transform their products, services and processes to remain competitive—and it’s no different for nonprofits. Research indicates that nonprofits coordinate innovative responses to complex social problems like homelessness, illiteracy, poverty and obesity; however, they struggle to continually innovate over time as social problems erupt and evolve in our communities. Social scientists identify several obstacles preventing nonprofit organizations from ongoing innovation:

  • First, and likely foremost, is funding. Historically, charitable contributions in the United States have remained fairly constant, but the number of nonprofit organizations and the breadth of community services the sector offers has increased exponentially in the last two decades. The result is an extremely competitive fundraising market in communities across the country. In response, organizations fight to hold onto existing programs to which funders are dedicated, rather than exploring new efforts requiring new funding streams. Innovation is perceived as expensive and risky.
  • Staff and board leadership are stretched thin. The effort to maintain daily operations often supersedes long-term sustainability efforts. People are busy! Planning retreats, environmental scans, information gathering, skill building and training are labor-intensive and often ignored in favor of short-term management and governance issues. The organization’s focus is on daily operations rather than innovating towards the future while also managing daily operations.
  • Often, the structure of a nonprofit makes it nearly impossible to innovate. Nonprofits operate with limited staff and resources, thus prohibiting their ability to create or modify. Innovation is ignored merely because existing resources barely sustain existing services.
  • Finally, nonprofits have a tendency to resist change. The idea of innovating or changing a program or service is perceived as a direct threat to the organization’s mission and the people it serves. Furthermore, many nonprofit leaders are averse to implementing new management or administrative practices because it feels too “for-profit-like.”

The Space for Innovation
In light of these obstacles, how does a nonprofit organization become more innovative? By creating the spaces necessary for innovation.

  • The Problem Space. Take a good, hard look at your organization and your community. Where are the problems? These areas beg for innovative thinking, but they must first be identified. Question your internal and external stakeholders and listen, listen, listen. Then consider transforming your organization, collaborations or bringing the issue to the attention of other service providers. Innovation first requires a problem, so find one!
  • The Growth Space. The philosophy is simple—the needs of clients and communities change, therefore nonprofits must also change. Period. Allocate resources for staff to attend trainings, encourage the CEO to meet with his or her peers, and continuously train board members. Growing the skills within the organization grows the entire organization. But do more than just learn—bring that knowledge into the organization to make improvements. New skills and knowledge transforms how the organization functions. Knowledge is key to innovation.
  • The Failure Space. Innovation involves failure. It’s risky. However, if change is managed through planning and monitoring, breakdowns can be quickly solved and most catastrophes averted. The point is to plan, monitor and learn as you go. Mistakes are part of the innovation process and not a reflection on the quality of the organization or its people. Rather, learning from failure is a sign of perseverance. Innovation requires perseverance.
  • The Get-Out-Of-Your-Space Space. Go away! All too often, nonprofit leaders immerse themselves in their organization and in their mission at the expense of all others. Take the time to learn from organizations with similar missions operating in other communities. Take a field trip and return with one or two best practices to implement at home. Innovation does not have to be original—only new to your organization.
  • The Forward Space. An organization cannot creatively solve problems if it is focused on work already completed. Think of it this way: Have you ever traveled on an interstate in reverse? Of course not! Rather than giving reports at meetings chronicling what happened last month, focus on what is going to happen in the next 30 to 90 days, which allows the experts in the room time to be proactive and develop innovative solutions. Then allocate financial and human resources to those efforts, create a timeline and monitor progress. Innovation is proactive—not reactive.
  • The Thinking Space. In the midst of managing the everyday struggles of a nonprofit, take time to consider greater issues. At minimum, staff and boards should gather once a year away from the organization to contemplate changes in the community and discuss long-term sustainability. While such retreats can be viewed as wasteful and time-consuming, this is the opportunity to hatch innovative ideas. Innovation requires quality thinking and planning.

In all, innovation is sparked by actively listening, constantly learning, making mistakes, generating new approaches to problems, creating a simple plan of action, allocating resources to the effort and monitoring progress. However, none of this can happen without creating the space for innovation in the first place—so let some air out of the tires. iBi

Eileen A. Ruby Setti is a partner in the consulting firm Ruby & Associates, which provides specialized services for nonprofits, and a PhD Candidate at Northern Illinois University studying public and nonprofit organizations.