Why Innovation is Integral to Nonprofit Management

By Daphne Stanford

Successful nonprofit organizations are run by great leaders.  So, what does it take to show excellent, innovative leadership in the public-sector and nonprofit worlds?  

These two realms often intersect since they share similar interests: the public good, social justice, socioeconomic mobility, ending hunger and homelessness, and so on.  

According to Ohio University, one of the most important characteristics of a strong organization is a good mission statement.  A strong, clearly-worded mission statement is highly motivating to not only the community, but also the organization’s employees, who are more likely to feel engaged if they feel inspired and are clear on how they are making a difference to society.

Other important characteristics of a strong not-for-profit organization include finding the best people possible for open positions and spending a good amount of quality one-on-one time with employees once the right people have been hired, so the lines of communication remain open.  Highly inspired and engaged employees will be more likely to successfully engage their community members, giving their organization the chance to make a societal impact in the first place.  

Lastly, it’s crucial that nonprofit coordinators seek to both “under-promise” and “over-deliver,” when seeking funds — even though the temptation to over-promise is often difficult to resist.  That way, nobody walks away unhappy, and fundraising goals are met without a lot of failed expectations.  

One organization known for its innovation, Teach for America, teamed up with Arizona State University — itself a leader in educational innovation, due in no small part to its groundbreaking number of online offerings.

Teach for America believes in innovation so strongly that it formed the Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation (SEI) team, whose mission is “to end educational inequity in our lifetime.”  The team provides one-on-one and group-based professional development and coaching opportunities to both current corps members and alumni of Teach for America.  Although not every nonprofit may be large and well-organized enough to put together such a supportive team, the idea is a good one.  

Teach for America built a movement around putting young graduates in public classrooms, which was innovative for its time.  Many colleges and universities are also exhibiting innovative thinking by offering programs and classes online.  Furthermore, there are a number of graduate programs in education available to those interested in a higher pay scale than the salary offered to those with only a Bachelor’s degree.  

Having an advanced degree can also encourage teachers to assume a leadership position among their peers.  Moreover, teachers mentoring teachers is good for retention: “According to EdWeek, 86 percent of teachers who had a mentor in the first year of their employment remained in their teaching posts.”

One word that gets tossed around in many discussions about innovation is disruption.  In her blog, nonprofit governance expert Debra Beck asks what it would take to truly disrupt what happens in the nonprofit boardroom and transform the outcomes.  She asks, “What if fun and fulfillment were the norms for the ways nonprofit boards work?”  

Perhaps one key to allowing this kind of disruption lies in what the nonprofit consultancy Rad Campaign calls “changing our internal mindset about how we do business, and changing the external perception that what we do isn’t really business.”

Could it be true that many not-for-profit organizations have a sort of inferiority complex?  If so, one thing that could help, the Boston Consulting Group found, is to set a shared definition and purpose.  If a purpose is defined, there is suddenly an objective that everyone can work toward.  It’s difficult to have a purpose, after all, without a clear plan or ultimate goal.  

In addition, a viable organizational structure and result-tracking process will help further progress toward said goal. “Organizations need to adopt a mindset that not only tolerates, but celebrates risk and failure. They need to adopt a beginner’s mindset where all ideas are open to vetting and reconsideration,” said Stephanie Cosner Berzin, co-director of the Center for Social Innovation at Boston College School of Social Work 

This “beginner’s mind” has long been recognized as key to being a good teacher, since it allows room for mistakes and simple explanations of concepts.  Simplicity is sometimes undervalued, but it is important to the process of understanding the world again, as if for the first time.  

This is what is necessary to innovative in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds: the ability to empathize with beginners in order to be able to relate to those with much less experience and knowledge than us, to explain ideas thoroughly and to the best of our ability.  

Image credit: Flickr/Dennis Skley

Daphne Stanford hosts “The Poetry Show!” on KRBX, her local community radio station, every Sunday at 5 p.m. A writer of poetry, nonfiction, and lyric essays, her favorite pastimes include hiking, bicycling, and good conversation with friends and family.  Follow her on Twitter @TPS_on_KRBX.

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