Was it something we innovated?

Innovation for nonprofits/NGOs should not be a buzzword. But too often, unfortunately, it is.

Innovation frequently feels like an attempt to communicate anything that a social impact organization considers unique to its activity or new in its approach. But innovative almost always fails to convey what nonprofits actually do, much less how well they do it. 

Innovation also depends on the roles/areas involved. Leadership framing of innovation will almost always diverge from frontline staff perceptions of what’s innovative. Moreover, the actual drivers of innovation depend on whether its pursuit is rooted in actual need versus aspirational desire.

Leaders and boards might seek innovation when they feel pressure or notice competition. Managers may be drawn to innovation when they feel frustrated or constrained. Frontline staff could witness innovation emerging from realizing how much their work matters, especially through inspiring stories that reinforce an organization’s mission and purpose.

Social innovation frequently rears its head in grant writing and fundraising. Funders/donors sometimes expect innovation without explaining what they actually consider innovative. The inevitable confusion leaves grantees scrambling. 

Even when funders/donors explain what they consider innovative, groups will spend  time and energy trying to find the most ornate way to describe their programs and services, instead of clearly articulating what sets their activities apart from others.

Many times, the most innovative acts are those which endure while other efforts have ceased. And sometimes efforts that have faced limitations in terms of reach, scope, scale, or support can— and will— be revisited by others at a different time under more favorable circumstances, with greater esults.

Innovation, however, may not be a priority concern from those who directly benefit from— or depend upon—  a social impact organization’s good works. Innovation may actually matter less compared to how well needs are met, the value an organization can bring to society and communities, and what effect programs and services have on a solving challenges or improving livelihoods/circumstances.

Innovation is not about the “aha moments”, but what comes after: the long-term ability to nurture, sustain, and improve what works. And this requires the capacity and resources to take chances, to fail, to learn (and hopefully to share knowledge) in ways that might benefit other stakeholders.  

If good organizations can’t innovate, their effectiveness erodes over time. If good organizations won’t innovate, they lose the power to shape the vision of the good they seek to achieve, and can only settle for what’s merely doable not desired. Failure to innovate then becomes a fixation on what’s reasonable not what’s achievable and sustainable.

Moreover, leaders and teams at every level must bring their own imaginations and experiences to any/every challenge, and figure out what’s best for their organizations. But it’s nearly impossible to sustain innovation over the long run without dedicated funding, time, training, tools and a supportive culture.

Maybe we really mean ways of preparing for change or planning for different ways of doing something better/more effectively/with greater efficiency? Maybe we really mean exploring impact pathways that are ignored or have yet to be discovered? Maybe it’s about aiming towards something more ambitious than what exists? Maybe it’s more about being creative, adaptive, or forward looking instead of innovative?


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