Just what does innovation mean for nonprofits?

One of our recent nonprofit grads is doing an internship at a foundation that funds innovative projects. She emailed me recently asking how I define innovation as it relates to the nonprofit sector.

My answer: Hmmm... Good question.

Businessman holding light bulb

Merriam-Webster defines innovation as "the introduction of something new." I know that many foundations like to fund innovative projects, but I never understood why so much weight was given to those projects (versus supporting the tried-and-true programs that produce consistent results). I always felt a little frustrated when a grant application would ask "How is this project or program innovative?" I always suspected they didn't want the truth: It's not -- but it is still a great program doing really important work.

The 2010 Chicago Innovation Awards is now accepting applications (deadline is July 31, 2010 -- nonprofits may apply). Curious to see how they defined innovation, I found the following criteria:

  • Introduced within the past 3 years
  • Created a whole new category of business (ex: e-trading stocks)
  • Triggered a "me-too" response from competitors (ex: Touch screen cell phones)
  • Changed or elevated consumer expectations (ex: overnight delivery)
  • Solved unmet customer or consumer needs
  • Received market support (users) or financial success (revenues, although not necessarily profits)

Interesting. Relating this back to nonprofits, I see that instead of thinking in terms of creating an entirely new, innovative program, we might find ways to infuse innovation in our current tried-and-true programs (like e-trading stocks).

I have heard Robert Egger (one of my favorite nonprofit thought leaders) talk several times about innovation. He spoke one time about how wonderful it would be if schools would allow soup kitchens to use their cafeterias in the evening. Think about it: these huge cafeterias sit empty from 2:00 p.m. on. Many soup kitchens would love to have additional sites, but can't afford the cost of building a new facility. And, the school would benefit by charging a reasonable fee for the use of their cafeteria. It is a win-win-win (hungry people get food, nonprofit makes progress toward realizing its mission, school gets additional funding).

That, to me, is innovation. How might our nonprofits benefit if we:

  • Spent 15 minutes each day brainstorming about how to be more innovative?
  • Dedicated one staff meeting a month to innovation brainstorming?
  • Gave innovation awards to staff and volunteers to encourage creative solutions?

Let me know what innovative solutions you come up with.


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  • This juxtaposes interestingly with a recent post by Rabbi Hayyim Herring at www.toolsforshuls.com, building on the Apple propensity for re-mixing to create its innovative new products, and discussing how re-mixing might apply in the synagogue environment. (Churches and other non-profits as well.)

    The use or school cafeterias for soup kitchens is a perfect re-mix example. Ideas that can be implemented strictly with sweat equity (or that can appeal to a single funder) are ideal for the n-f-p environment. And of course the killer phrase must be expunged from everyone's vocabulary: We can't do that, we've never done it before.

  • In reply to LarryKaufman:

    I just visited Rabbi Herring's blog. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

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