Cultivating a Culture of Innovation at Your Nonprofit

Photo by Flickr user elycefeliz (and h/t to Beth Kanter).
A persistent focus of conversation among nonprofit folks – and the highlight of one of the plenaries at the Nonprofit Technology Conference a couple of weeks ago – is the challenge of fostering a climate of innovation within the nonprofit community.

Why does it matter? For one thing, nonprofit folks know that some of the challenges they face aren’t solvable with conventional approaches. For another, funders often explicitly emphasize their interest in funding innovative approaches (a topic for another day). And innovative just sounds cool. Who wouldn’t prefer to be innovative and ground-breaking instead of dull and conventional?

The trick about innovation, though: it’s one thing to say we encourage it, but quite another to actually follow through. Cultivating a culture of innovation means encouraging your staff and colleagues to take risks. It means embedding an expectation about learning from those risks – the successes and the failures – and sharing that knowledge. It means rewarding people on the team for questioning assumptions and suggesting new ideas. And if fostering a culture of innovation is important enough to you, you may even need to penalize people for not taking risks.

Most importantly, you need to convey – not just pay lip service – to your staff and colleagues that you genuinely support them thinking creatively, testing their ideas, and sharing what they learn, even when it fails.

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