(Lack of) Innovation at Non-Profits

by Michael Graber

(Lack of) Innovation at Non-ProfitsThrough the Southern Growth Studio, I have the great honor to work with non-profits. Big ones. Growing ones. And ones on the verge of collapse. There is an odd tendency for almost all of these organizations to respond to innovations in the same way; they desire them deeply but are wildly timid. It’s a dizzying and paralyzing fear-based response. What if it doesn’t work? I don’t know … They yearn to roll out a new program or recreate an experience that gets better results, but something nagging in the culture keeps them from enacting the very thing that may set them apart and catalyze their potential.

Fear-based thinking keeps many non-profits from making sustainable growth leaps and assuming a stable leadership position. Yet, driven professionals long for holistic, positive change in branding, marketing, operations, programs, and the experience they offer donors to meet their noble missions. Short-term fear of the wrath of internal politics keeps the best and brightest from creating long-term gains. Real innovation cannot take root in such cultures.

Instead, employees covet the famous, albeit rare, examples of bravery in the non-profit space and zealously want their own me-too versions of these iconic initiatives. You hear again, again, and yet again: “what is our pink ribbon?” and “what is our ice bucket challenge?” While these stand as good examples of branding and marketing, they do not classify as a breakthrough innovation. Innovation—rethinking a business model, an experience, and a service—is even rarer at such culture.

The answer: do the work. There is a program, an unforgettable icon, a new experience, an innovation never known in the non-profit world that is yours for the taking, but you have to invest the time, resources, and care to cultivate it.

More critical to its success, you have to prepare your culture to embrace new thinking and calculated risks. You cannot reap the benefits of brave thinking and successful execution of something new to the industry if you do not craft the culture that embraces such thinking. Ultimately, it is the curse of the incremental improvement—symptomatic of culture that have too much middle management and not enough real leadership in place.

The sad fact is that innovation methods could be the most cost-effective tools for helping a non-profit to meet its mission. As well, it could discover donor-centric insights on deeper engagement that could transform a giving cycle from a transactional-based annual gift into an inspired relationship where donors become the core evangelists and most avid fundraisers throughout the year.

I’d love to learn about non-profits benefiting from Innovation practices—and encourage readers to send me case studies.

The world needs these non-profits to prosper, instead of suffering a me-too ADD where it wants to copy the Next Big Thing without doing the actual work of stimulating, cultivating, and launching innovative programs.

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Michael Graber is the cofounder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis.

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