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Conversations around innovation tend to center on big (often tech-focused), publicly traded companies, but this topic should not be reserved solely for business giants. Though it may feel intimidating, innovation is something that nonprofits — big and small — must also care about and act on.

Diving into this conversation may feel daunting given the wide array of implications it could have for your organization, but you shouldn’t let that stop you. In this blog, we’ll look at a few different types of innovation, why your nonprofit should care, and some tactics for incorporating innovation into your organization’s strategy.


What exactly do we mean by “innovation”?

Let’s start with a simple definition. According to Harvard Business School:

Innovation is a product, service, business model, or strategy that’s both novel and useful. Innovations don’t have to be major breakthroughs in technology or new business models; they can be as simple as upgrades to a company’s customer service or features added to an existing product (Boyles, 2022).

Innovative ideas are not just creative, but also useful. They must meet a real need and solve a real problem. Broadly speaking, there are three types of innovation that may be helpful in considering what your organization needs or has capacity for:

  • General Innovation: Introduces something brand new to your organization to address a specific need.
  • Transformational Innovation: Has a profound and lasting effect on your organization’s core structure or operations.
  • Groundbreaking Innovation: Introduces something few, if any, other organizations are doing. Groundbreaking innovation represents not just innovation within the organization, but within the culture at large (Lee, 2022).

Your organization should not try to take on each of these three types at once (or perhaps ever!), but these categories may be helpful as you evaluate the needs of your nonprofit.


Why is innovation so important?

When considering the importance of innovation for your nonprofit, you should be thinking about two key stakeholders — those impacted by the cause you are working toward and your donors. Successful innovation will allow you to better serve your constituents and, in turn, help with your fundraising goals, which ensures your ability to work toward your mission and vision. Sure, what you are currently doing may be working, but you also may be missing ways to make a bigger or longer-lasting impact. If your goal is to make the biggest difference for whatever your cause may be, this will, at some point and in some capacity, require new ways of thinking and acting.


Then why don’t more nonprofits focus on innovation?

The reasons you want to innovate, however, are likely the exact same ones that it may feel hard, overwhelming, or scary. You have donors to report back to and a mission to achieve, and disrupting what you already have in place to help you work toward that end may not feel wise or feasible. Though this mindset is completely understandable, it is ultimately a bit short-sighted and may even minimize your potential impact. Here is an excerpt from the Stanford Social Innovation Review explaining why innovation is both critical and difficult for nonprofits to achieve:

Recently The Bridgespan Group, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, surveyed 145 nonprofit leaders on their organizations’ capacity to innovate, which we defined as a break from practice, large or small, that leads to significant positive social impact. For the large majority of this group, innovation is more than just a catchall slogan — it’s an urgent imperative to which 80 percent of them aspire. The problem is, just 40 percent of these would-be innovators say their organizations are set up to do so.

This gap worries us because most respondents say that if they don’t come up with fresh solutions to the social sector’s myriad challenges, such as improving the academic performance of at-risk middle schoolers, increasing African farmers’ crop yields, or dramatically reducing the number of diarrhea-related deaths of young children worldwide, they won’t achieve the large-scale impact they seek (Sahni, Bliss & Pike, 2017).

In short, it seems that nonprofit leaders (perhaps yourself included) need less to be convinced why they should want to innovate, but instead need help formulating tangible strategies and tactics to make it possible.


How to begin incorporating innovation into your nonprofit

Because innovation is such a broad strategy and topic and because it will look so different for every organization, there is no failproof “five-step method” to get started. That being said, there are a few principles that should serve as a universal foundation for adding a focus on innovation to your nonprofit.


Define what innovation means for your organization

As we’ve said, innovation will look different from nonprofit to nonprofit, so developing a clear understanding of what it means for yours is an essential first step to success. For some, it may mean developing a new product, while for others, it’s rethinking a process (either internal or one that affects the people you serve). What’s important, though, is that there is a clear understanding of the type of innovation you want to pursue and the level of impact you desire.

Boston Consulting Group recommends using this tool (developed by their teams) as a starting point and activity for making sure your team is aligned on what innovation looks like for your nonprofit.

Work innovation into your structure

A major roadblock to incorporating innovation into your organization is a lack of clarity in terms of who should own it and how an idea is handled. Again, this will look different depending on your organization’s structure and ways of working. If you have the resources, you may have a person solely dedicated to innovation. More likely, though, certain roles become tasked with coming up with new ideas to test and, hopefully, add to the success of your organization.

This may also look like regularly scheduled (monthly, quarterly, etc.) brainstorming meetings for your entire team to pitch ideas and see what sticks. Regardless of how you choose to do it, the important piece here is that it is a consistent part of the structure, routine, and priorities of your organization.


Develop a curious culture

Not unrelated to the idea above is the need for curiosity and creativity to be baked deeply into the culture of your company. Without this, any definitions, parameters, or organizational structures you’ve put in place will likely fall flat.

This can be easier said than done since, as mentioned before, innovation can feel like a huge risk to a well-humming nonprofit. This cultural shift needs to come from the top down, with leaders encouraging risk-taking, new ideas, and a willingness to fail. When this change occurs, others in your organization will likely feel free to unleash their creativity, giving you your best shot at a meaningful and impactful new idea.


Monitor and evaluate results

As you begin to come up with new ideas, it is absolutely critical to validate the concepts, test them, prove them, and then scale them. In a culture of innovation, new ideas may be flying, but they are not all worth your time and effort.

So, it’s key to not just test them, but also collect data that you monitor and objectively evaluate. These results held up next to the clear definition of successful innovation that you’ve created should help you to quickly and easily determine if something you tried is worth continuing.

Keeping all of this in mind, it’s now time for you to consider what role innovation currently plays in your organization and what next steps you might need to take to prioritize it. At Atticus, we believe wholeheartedly in the power of innovation (which is why we are working to make the fundraising portion of your job easier and more effective than ever), and we are eager to see you unlock your nonprofit’s potential. Join us as we strive to find new and better ways to do good!