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Make Time for Innovation

(Oct. 14, 2008) In fundraising and the nonprofit sector as a whole, the sky is the limit for new ideas and better methods. But the trick, say the authors of a recent W.K. Kellogg Foundation report, is to incorporate a culture of systematic innovation, so you are not waiting around for new ideas to strike like lightning—randomly and unpredictably.

Fundraisers look for better ways to use their resources of people, time and money to better connect with donors. Nonprofits look for better ways to carry out their mission. Funders look for better ways to help these nonprofits. So where do these “better ways” come from?

In the report, Intentional Innovation: How Getting More Systematic about Innovation Could Improve Philanthropy and Increase Social Impact, innovation is viewed as a multi-step process—beyond just brainstorming—where one is not afraid to fail and tests new ideas before implementing them into the whole program. The executive summary of the report is available on the Kellogg Foundation website.

Innovative Nonprofits

“Funders are beginning to act as laboratories for pioneering new practices that take advantage of emerging opportunities,” note report authors Casper and Clohesy. Donors and foundations are looking for promising techniques that can be used on a broader scale. They are looking, in other words, for “better ways.”

Is your organization making time to come up with new approaches or just hanging on tight to what works? With the emergence of new technologies, better connectivity around the world and new ideas about how to make a difference, a nonprofit simply can’t stay still. The point of the Kellogg report is that while people often recognize the need for innovation, they rarely make time to “do” innovation—incorporating a culture where people look for, suggest, try out and apply better ways.

“A vague and generalized desire to innovate and create new approaches seldom leads to real breakthroughs in strategy and process,” they write. “Breakthroughs most frequently occur when an organization focuses on a small number of bold initiatives by systematically vetting innovative ideas and choosing to develop those that are most promising or relevant.”

Key Word: Systematic

How can you as a fundraiser or nonprofit leader make innovation a part of what you and your staff does? First think of innovation in steps. You first want to set the right conditions. The Internet search company, Google, has a policy that gives employees “20 percent time” to explore “pet” projects unrelated to their core work, notes the report. These projects often uncover new approaches or offerings later rolled out to users.

You next want to identify the problem to be solved so that efforts to innovate are focused. Once ideas are generated, they can be tested and piloted. Then those ideas that work are incorporated on a small scale. Under this model ideas are not simply adopted immediately, but they are not shot down before given a fair shake, either.

The Innovation Process

Here are some approaches to innovation cited in the report:

Collaborate. Forget the normal boundaries and bring together talented people from a wide variety of fields and disciplines to work together and cross-fertilize. Look both inside and outside your existing organization for new types of innovation partnerships.

Create an active support system. Develop a culture that supports, nurtures, and develops innovation in a systematic way. Creativity is only one part of the innovation picture. A disciplined yet flexible process is needed to launch new ideas and then scale them to the opportunity or problem at hand.

Change agents are needed. Senior leadership support for innovation is important, of course. But an organization also needs specialists who can foster innovation throughout the organization, both on specific projects and in structural ways that impact daily operations.

Use new technology. German scribes mocked the early printing presses as unreliable “contraptions” that would never replace hand-written books. Forward-looking organizations should identify and embrace new technologies that can increase the flow of input from external sources and simplify operational work such as the grant making process.

Click here to download the executive summary of Intentional Innovation: How Getting More Systematic about Innovation Could Improve Philanthropy and Increase Social Impact, a research report funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The summary also contains a list of resources for further reading on generating fresh ideas and new approaches to problems.

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