Think Big (but Start Small) with Nonprofit Innovation

With advances in technology such as artificial intelligence, automation, and cloud services flooding the marketplace, nonprofits feel the pressure to adapt, adopt, and innovate. But how do you determine what’s worthwhile and what’s a distraction from your mission? According to nonprofit technology experts, successful leaders often share one proven approach to innovation: They think big but start small.

Take adoption of cloud technology as a good example. “Most organizations fall into one of three cloud mindsets,” said Kelley Hecht, team lead for nonprofit industry advisors at Amazon Web Services (AWS), which commissioned an innovation study about the state of nonprofit cloud technology adoption. “They are either embracing or embarking on innovation; launching and learning; or they are innovating and accelerating.”

Where does your organization currently stand in its approach to technology and innovation?

  1. Embracing and embarking = 46% of nonprofit organizations
    • You’re a tech-curious organization, but not tech-committed
    • You use technology for a variety of purposes, but view it as an operating expense rather than a core part of your organizational strategy
  2. Launching and learning = 50% of nonprofit organizations
    • You’re using technology to improve efficiencies, increase revenue, reduce costs, and expand programs and services
    • You may be ready to make the case to leadership for increased investment in technology
  3. Innovating and accelerating = 4% of nonprofit organizations
    • You have a big-picture approach, viewing digital transformation and cloud technology as mission-critical and integral to your strategy
    • You leverage advancements in technology to expand programs and services, drive organizational awareness, increase revenue, improve efficiencies, and reduce costs to allocate more funds to your mission

7 Ways to Think Big About Innovation

Whatever your stage of organizational innovation, you can get started on next steps by thinking big about your mission challenges and starting small on your potential solutions. The key is to begin, said Linton Myers, Director of Innovation and Incubation at Blackbaud, and keep trying, even if the first attempt is not a slam-dunk.  

“Risk-averse leaders look at failures as a time loss, resource loss, or budget loss,” Myers said. “Instead of thinking what happens if I fail, think about what happens if I don’t try? What’s the opportunity loss if I don’t innovate, rather than the opportunity cost if this fails?”

1. Work Backwards

Figure out what outcome your organization envisions as its future state and work backwards to the starting point. Hecht said innovative organizations start specifically with the business result or ideal mission impact and then chart their path to the outcome by working through the details:

  • What is the experience my donor is having?
  • What is the experience of my staff?
  • What impact on our mission will our organization be able to celebrate because we took these steps?  

2. Write an Inspirational Press Release

Take the “working backwards” philosophy to its conclusion by writing a fictional press release with a headline that gives you shivers, one that celebrates your future accomplishment made possible by your innovative mindset. Writing it will help you define how embracing innovation will make the world better for your beneficiaries, donors, employees, and community.

3. Shoot for 70%

Myers says the most innovative organizations use the OKR framework, which stands for objectives and key results. It is a method of project management that sets macro-goals achieved through a series of micro-objectives that must be accomplished along the way, each measurable and deliverable by a deadline. The objective is the destination; the key results get you there. And perfection is not the goal.

“The point of the OKR framework is to be very aggressive,” Myers said. “Almost all of us think success is hitting 100%. With this framework, 70% is getting an A. As long as you’re still proceeding down the path of the overall objective, you can leave room for aggressive goals and some failures along the way.”

4. Make Evangelists of Early Users

Change is difficult, Myers says, and it requires buy-in. The quickest path to buy-in is to get one person per team to test a new system, platform, or process and see how their behavior changes. As they talk about the improvements in efficiencies, for instance, from automating administrative tasks, they begin to evangelize the innovation, talking about the value of the change in formal meetings and casually with other stakeholders. Enthusiasm smooths the path to rolling out the innovation more broadly.

5. Lift Up Your Head

If you’re head down all the time, pulled into the “tyranny of the urgent,” as Hecht calls it, it’s hard to look up and plan for the future by asking questions such as, “How can we innovate around our ops and finance teams? How can we innovate around the mundane tasks that our staffs are required to do day in and day out?”

These functional areas offer fertile ground for artificial intelligence applications and automation, Hecht said, but pursuing those innovations requires us to look up from the daily grind to think bigger.

6. Get Curious About Agile

If you’re certain about why things are done the way they are or why they can’t be changed, ask yourself if you really have reason to be so confident. Deeply consider what you might be missing or misunderstanding. One effective method of learning what you don’t know in real time is by adopting the Agile concept of sprints. Very common in the tech industry, sprints are little pockets of progress (those measurable, deadline-driven micro-objectives Myers mentioned as part of the OKR framework). Sprints can help you identify the small steps toward the big outcomes you plan to achieve. Designed to test innovations, sprints are short, repeatable phases that allow teams to iterate ideas, follow their curiosity, and deliver results.

7. Fully Leverage Your Partners

You are likely paying for insights, skills, capabilities, and upgrades from external partners that you never use because you’re too busy or just don’t know how to apply it to your work. Understand the scope of services provided and use them. Tap every bit of the wisdom at your fingertips, both internally and externally:

  • Ask stakeholders to join meetings they usually aren’t invited to
  • Create councils of multiple vendors and partners to collectively ideate solutions to a problem
  • Ask leaders and team members to give feedback outside of their roles

“You have people who are diverse and complex,” Hecht said. “Allow all of that richness to come to the surface in a way that can help you drive innovation.”  

Now You’re Ready to Start Small

Pinpoint your first step toward innovation. Maybe you want to make internal processes, such as reporting, easier for your team. That single task can be a giant step toward innovation, with no complicated coding, no huge expenditure on untested shiny new software.

“You can get lost in the thought process that tech is the end result,” Myers said. “The value of innovation is not the thing that drives the change; it’s the change itself.”  

Even for the top 4% of the most innovative nonprofit organizations surveyed in the AWS study, the biggest concern remains figuring out how to use and invest in technology more effectively and adapting to new technology across the organization.

Circling back to starting small can help you build toward more effective, big ideas.

“You don’t have to solve the problem of generative AI or answer machine learning questions on your own or do it all at once,” Hecht said. “But you can go deep with your partners to understand if (your innovation project) aligns with your business goals.”

To learn more about navigating cloud services, the new AI landscape and the strategies, tools, and tactics to become a more innovative organization, watch the four-part Chart Your Course webinar series, now on-demand.

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