“We’re constantly looking for our next big next.”- a successful nonprofit CEO

Nonprofits need to identify and adopt innovations to thrive, especially during turbulent times. Finding and using innovations can seem like it requires scary Michelangelo-like skills. To create “masterpieces,” you look into the future and see opportunities. Then, like Michelangelo, you carve away what doesn’t work to do what does. Finding and creating innovations is neither easy nor quick, but it is fun. Selecting and implementing them shapes every successful nonprofit and establishes the legacies of CEOs.

Below are the six laws of nonprofit innovations. I recommend you use this list as a test when you have a collection of possible ideas and want to pick out the best ideas to pilot. Prioritize the idea or ideas that meet these laws.

1. Mission Driven. Your innovation aligns with your mission and moves it forward. For example, The Salvation Army recognizes that it can’t move people out of their shelters, except back into homelessness, without transitional housing. So it embarks on a project to create this housing. Successful innovations help your organization to fulfill its mission in new or better ways. Do you idea align with your mission?

2. Congruent. Successful innovations are congruent with current cultural norms. Your upgrades reflect the world’s current thinking and values or emerging thinking. Right now, it is unlikely that an innovation to help will underweight children gain weight in North America will fly. If, however, your mission involves international aid—an innovation 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 headline issues. Is your innovation congruent with issues hitting the headlines?

3. Seeded in History. Your potential for success increases when your proposed innovation builds on your expertise. Your experience gave you skills. You increase your success odds when you reuse these skills in new places. In a recent client meeting, the staff chooses to offer digital small education events over “have a drink with us” gatherings. They made this choice because they lacked expertise in shipping coffee to donors, but they had done numerous intimate educational events. Does your idea build on your current expertise?

4. Potential Future Impact. By definition, innovations hold the potential to define who you will be in 20 years or more. This is true even though; we cannot fathom the full impact of our work now. Twenty years ago, a nonprofit found creative ways to engage donors. It also struggled through the Great Recession, but Post-Recession, it is more durable and committed to increasing its donor base and stewardship. Does your innovation hold the potential to be in use in 20 years?

5. Honor Your Essentials. The Fine Arts Museum in St. Petersburg boasts of its 50-year history of donor support.  The Museum also receives significant income from ticket sales. Because it is committed to both income streams, any innovations at the Museum must enhance these income sources and the communities they represent. Does your concept recognize essentials and build on your nonprofit’s values and theory of change?

6. Resistance from Believers. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization; likewise, resistance to innovations is the price most of us pay for having developed loyal supporters. Successful changes challenge supporters–at first. In talking to hundreds of successful nonprofits, I found only one “lawbreaker” of this rule – a CEO who boasted that a significant innovation enthused her staff. More commonly, staff, board members, volunteers resist change. While rarely pleasant, resistance helps you to hone your message, set a pace that allows people to keep up with you, and identify places to file down rough edges. Listen to this feedback, but recognize that resistance flares up with both great ideas and disasters. Do people express reservations about your proposed innovation?

Those are six laws of innovation. Notably absent from the list is funding. Funding is important. It’s just not a law. When innovation is important, you find the funding. I’ve seen innovations funded by all seven sources of nonprofit income plus internal budget adjustments. Often initial funding indicates that a change 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 you as you explore innovative ideas. Use them as a frame to organize your possibilities and find your next big next. You can, like Michelangelo, sculpt a masterpiece.

Related Resources

Nonprofit Strategy, Not “Let’s Make a Deal”

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