Twelve Tips for Encouraging Innovation at Your Nonprofit

Some innovations are better than others (photo from the How To Be a Dad blog).
One of the more energetic exchanges at the Nonprofit Technology Conference earlier this month took place during a plenary discussion on innovation among nonprofits. The discussion was interesting but heady, and the pragmatics of fostering a culture of innovation within your nonprofit or becoming more innovative in your own work matter just as much as the big picture discussion that took place on stage.

One critical but often overlooked element is making sure you build in strong learning loops. Experimenting with creative ideas doesn’t end up being very valuable if you can’t learn from the experience and apply those lessons in the future. What does that mean? Most of the time, it means setting clear goals, being clear about your assumptions and hypotheses, being clear about your evaluation process, and finally making sure you debrief thoughtfully and share the lessons learned.

But even this kind of language is pretty abstract. Just how do you encourage innovation? A few practical suggestions:

1) Once in a while attend a conference that you wouldn’t ordinarily attend. If it’s in a different field, all the better. Try a conference on marketing, social media, museums, technology, creating a strong professional development program, or pretty much anything that involves a different group of people.

2) Just getting out of your own narrow nonprofit space can be really valuable. If you focus on women’s issues, try engaging with environmentalists sometime. If you run a botanic garden, plug in with the education-focused folks.

3) Once in a while read through blogs in those other areas. And if you can’t afford or make time for any more conferences, blogs are a great way to pay attention to conversations in other spaces.

4) Give each member of your staff a small discretionary “sandbox budget” that they can spend however they wish so long as they explain the goal, why they think it might work, and how they’ll evaluate the outcome.

5) Give an award every month to the member of your staff that tries the most interesting new project.

6) Make open conversation about failures a part of your staff meetings … what was the logic of the idea, what did you learn, how might you iterate from here?

7) Mix up the location of staff meetings and especially retreats.

8) As part of the workflow for any new project, ask who else has tried this and what have they learned, and show how this project iterates on those lessons.

9) Establish a consistent system for evaluating new ideas and then evaluating the outcomes when you test them.

10) Read business books off the bestseller list, or read books on innovation and creativity, or histories of social and political movements.

11) Watch TED videos or read Kottke.org.

12) If you work with any philanthropic funders that support groups across multiple issues, ask them which of those other organizations really stand out for their innovative approaches. Or ask local angel or venture capital investors about the most innovative startups in the area, or your local culture reporter which local arts organizations would be the most interesting to talk with. Take those executive directors or founders out for coffee.

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