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The Six Laws of Successful Innovations

“We’re constantly looking for our next big next.”

To flourish, nonprofits need to regularly identify and adopt fresh, big innovations. Nonprofits need innovations sometimes to survive but always to flourish. This is important work and it often takes Michelangelo-like skills. To create a masterpiece you must look into the future and see the opportunities trapped inside it. Then, like Michelangelo, you carve away what doesn’t work so you can focus on what does. Finding and creating your next big next is neither easy nor quick. However, fresh innovations are essential and potentially hugely rewarding. Selecting and implementing them shapes every successful nonprofit and establishes the CEO’s legacies.

Below are the six laws of nonprofit innovations for major upgrades. These laws assume your innovation has emotional appeal. Note that funding is not listed as a law. While funding is a major consideration, it’s not a law. More on that later.

1. Mission Driven. Not only must your big innovation fit with your mission; mission must drive it. Nonprofits build their next big next on mission-based needs. Something is missing in your mission arena; the innovation addresses it. For example, The Salvation Army recognizes that it can’t move people out of homelessness without a place they can move into after their shelter. Thus, it’s next big next is to create transitional housing. Your next big innovation helps your organization to fulfill its mission in a new or better way.

2. Congruent. Successful innovations are congruent with cultural norms where you serve. Your next big next reflects the world’s current thinking and values. Right now, it is unlikely that a major innovation will involve helping underweight children gain weight in North America. If, however, your mission involves international aid — a big next that links children who need to lose weight in the United States with those who need to gain it in other countries — has vibrant appeal. This second approach is congruent and provides a fresh twist on issues we read about in daily headlines.

3. Seeded in History. Your potential for success increases the more your innovation builds on your historical expertise. Your experience gave you skills. You transfer these to your new innovation to make it work. If you have expertise housing the homeless, this translates into expertise in transitional homes. New lessons still await everyone venturing into big innovations, but your existing skills seed your success.

4. Future Impact. By definition, a major innovation holds the potential to define who you will be in 20 years or more. This is true even though, like Michelangelo, we cannot fathom the full impact of our work now. Twenty years ago, Nonprofit One specialized in grants as a supplemental income source. It struggled through the recession and continues to struggle. In a different city, Nonprofit Two’s founder nurtured a small cadre of donors. It too struggled through the Recession, but Post-Recession, it is stronger and more determined than ever to increase its donor base and stewardship.

5. Maintain Your Essentials. The Fine Arts Museum in St. Petersburg boasts of its fifty-year history of donor support. Future innovation must honor this support. The Museum also receives significant income from ticket sales. Because it is committed to this balance, innovations at The Museum will, also, honor this income source and the community interaction it represents. Your successful innovation strategies recognize key essentials and build your future around them.

6. Challenge Believers. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization; likewise, resistance to major innovations is the price we pay for loyalty. On the positive side, people believe in the way you do things now. In talking to hundreds of successful nonprofits, I found only one “lawbreaker” of this rule – a CEO who boasted that her staff was enthused by a major innovation. More commonly staff, board members, volunteers, and perhaps even the leadership advocating the innovation, resists change. (While rarely pleasant, resistance is beneficial to you when you use it to hone your message, embrace your history, pace yourself, and identify specific places where you will file down rough edges on your masterpiece.)

Those are six laws of innovation. Specifically absent is funding. Obviously, funding is important. It’s just not a law. When innovation is important enough in a healthy organization, funding is found. I’ve seen next big next innovations funded by all seven sources of nonprofit income plus internal budget adjustments. Often initial funding indicates that an innovation survived the crucible of the creative process and merits a trial run. Successful leaders know (and sometimes forget) that just because something is fundable doesn’t mean it makes a great innovation.

There you go. Six laws, and one serious consideration, to use as guidelines while you explore your next big innovations. Use them as a frame to organize your possibilities and find your next big next. You can, like Michelangelo, sculpt a masterpiece.

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