By Heather Hiscox on February 2, 2017
Think back to a job that filled you with optimism and excitement. You had a vision for the organization and your place within it. You were there to make a difference .
Now recall the day, week, month, year that you realized that your voice was not going to be heard, that your ideas were going to lose to the one belonging to the highest paid person in the office, and recall when you began to ask, “What am I doing here?” “Are we making a difference to really impact homelessness, hunger, poverty, domestic abuse, __ (fill in the blank with your social good mission)?” “What difference can I make?”
We’ve had those experiences and have felt the despair that comes from wanting to change the world and not knowing how. In our work with a diverse array of nonprofit and social impact organizations, we have seen powerful, transformational results when organizations adopt and internalize two fundamental beliefs:
1. Innovative ideas can come from anywhere and anyone
We’ve seen a small, but mighty innovation team of four individuals transform the way a municipality’s employees work. We have seen a quiet finance director go from saying “no”, to being excited about finding ways to say “yes” and support his colleagues. We have seen one volunteer catalyze a cultural shift in the way the organization develops programs in just two days. Organizations’ stakeholders often want to contribute and share ideas, but need to know that leadership is listening before they will speak up.
Command and control tactics may have worked in the past, but they have no place in the nonprofit organization of the future. The speed of change is increasing, the needs and expectations of the many constituencies we serve (our “customers”) are changing, and the complexity of the social challenges we are tackling continue to evolve. In this uncertain environment where we cannot execute our way to stay relevant and increase our impact, the ultimate competitive advantage is learning and translating learning into action as quickly as possible. This happens by empowering and enabling our employees to understand the situations and challenges of our many customers more deeply than we ever have before, and then develop and test bold solutions to address those challenges. In the nonprofit organization of the future, innovation (the creation of new value for those we serve) is everyone’s responsibility and employees are given the resources and support to identify and act on opportunities to drive impact for the many customers they serve.
The nonprofit of the future is based on an unshakeable foundation of deep empathy and empowerment of those it serves, including staff, one of their oft-forgotten VIP stakeholders. When all people (clients, board members, program coordinators, donors, administrative staff, directors, funders) are valued in an organization, it creates a massive, mission-elevating impact that can transform the culture of an organization and its future success.
2. Innovation comes from reigniting the entrepreneurial spirit inside organizations
The very best way to inspire new ideas is to reactivate the entrepreneurial spirit. This is the desire inside each of us to explore, to be curious and creative, to solve problems, and to create change. Just as we can lose the passion we feel for a new job full of promise, we can lose our entrepreneurial spirit. What happens to the baby crawling on her knees exploring every smell and taste, touching everything, and absorbing the world around her? What happens to the young girl that could play for hours with a roll of tape, a cardboard box and a few markers? What happens to the graduate who leaves school inspired to take on the world and make her mark?
A few lucky souls live their dream and are a beacon of hope, but for many of us, our innovative spark goes dim. Our lust for creativity is numbed with busy work, and our entrepreneurial urges slip away under a heavy fog of conformity, constrained definitions of success, and the need to execute upon “the way we’ve always done it.”
The good news is that innovation fights to see the light. It can come from the smallest interactions, even a single conversation. Innovation can arise from a tiny tweak that eventually creates a major shift in the way you work. Innovation is a muscle that can be built, using tools, language and a process that makes sense. “Being innovative” is not an intangible or unreachable state. It can be accomplished in just hours and days and can change the way an organization works forever.
By giving employees permission to revive their entrepreneurial spirit and providing them with a framework, process, and tools to channel it, employees can reconnect with why they originally decided to do this important work and help your organization accelerate and deepen its impact. They can relearn to walk in the shoes of those you serve, know exactly how to test new, big, bright ideas, and make decisions based on evidence of what actually works to change the world. Are you ready to “be innovative”, get back your passion, your voice, and really make a difference?