Innovate or Die: The Fight to Establish a Culture of New Thinking

main.jpgThe following blog is by Adaobi Okolue.

I’ve been having this recurring dream that’s got me wondering what the next couple of years in nonprofit land (and my perceived state of freedom) will look like. In my dream, I’m making stops at local nonprofit organizations in one of those white cargo vans with conspicuous ’60s flower-printed curtains draped over the back windows.

Ignoring “no solicitation” signs, I walk up to front-desk personnel and assure them I have meetings with their executive directors. After introductions, I convince these executives to check out my new fundraisinggimmick tool (too heavy to carry up). As I open the van’s backdoor, the Stride Gum ram emerges from nowhere and catapults executive after executive into a black hole.

Next thing I know, I’m 10,000 feet up on a plane with a lineup of parachute-strapped nonprofit executive directors and board chairs fearfully looking down at a scorched phrase on flat terrain that reads: Innovate or Die. They look back to see me with a .32 caliber in hand, and jump.

Why do nonprofits fear innovation?

Innovation isn’t a new concept to the sector. However, a culture of innovation—as Glenn Karwoski described at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ Creativity Lab: The Art and Science of Innovation workshop—is (1) constantly asking what if and why not, (2) being genuinely curious about what you and others are doing, (3) trying to find out what we don’t know, and (4) looking for all the right answers.

Despite the growing number of nonprofits and money invested in the sector, conditions have gotten worse: widening gaps in income, education achievement, healthcare, etc. Progressive and sustainable change is obviously needed, but achieving that is largely dependent on our ability to integrate innovation into the fabric of nonprofit culture.

So, what’s stopping us?

  • Resistance to perpetual change. “This is how it’s been done,” says the director of something. Innovation is a constant. It requires you to continually ask questions to find all the right answers. Those right answers will force you to make connections towards a greater idea. This doesn’t always happen in a brainstorming session, but being regularly open to change allows for these incremental advances.
  • Fear to admit what’s worked before is no longer working (or never worked). Evaluation has this uncanny ability to look you in the face and say, "You’re failing." This is a good thing. Failure provides you a starting point to discover what you don’t know. This means programs that have existed for years get rebuilt or scrapped. It also means your end result is not necessarily programmatic.
  • Funders don’t like failure. Failure is an inevitable part of reaching for an incredible vision. Grants strapped with impractical deadlines and results and restricted usage lead to nonprofits that tweak programs to fall wherever the foundation’s wind blows. This stifles larger-scaled innovation.
  • Judgmental thinking. When we hear an idea or concept that goes against our experience, institutional training, or rational, the walls go flying up. This is partly due to the lizard brain—the resistance that prevents us from achieving our goals. Asking questions does provide the creative abrasion necessary for ideas to shine, but managing the lizard brain—for example, knowing when and how to ask questions—allows for the right answers to emerge.

How can we help establish a culture of innovation?

Regardless of the operating budget or staff roster, innovation is possible. Here are three methods that Glenn shared for creating a culture of innovation (which I’ve strained through a nonprofit lens):

  • Shift perspective. Being sensitive to the viewpoint of your constituents will allow you to hear their needs in ways that will drive innovative, effective solutions. It means we’re talking, listening and involving our constituents as the solutionists of the problems we’re trying to address.
  • Force connections. Looking for the similarities between things that might seem to have no relation to one another forces you to find connections that lead to new questions, new answers, new ideas. Those connections can and should be made from things happening inside and outside the sector.
  • Develop a process. Having a systematic method for gathering ideas and finding out what you don’t know ensures that innovation becomes more than just an emblem for modifying programs to funders’ shifting focus. This as simple as having a bulletin board for collecting ideas ormorphing staff meetings into regular brainstorming sessions.   

Many times we look at our young professional status as a hindrance to our ability to influence our organizations, so we join boards, volunteer on committees, wear suits, and tweet incessantly about professional stuff in hopes to increase our Klout scores. The truth of the matter is we’re well positioned to be ruthless innovators. Maybe we’re not kidnapping EDs, but as young professionals we bring a perspective and freedom that hasn’t been tainted by the day-to-day politics or wear-and-tear from the work we do. 

Innovate or die. What are your thoughts about innovation in the sector? How has your organization prioritized or integrated innovation into its culture?

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