Empowering nonprofit innovation

Empowering nonprofit innovation

September 30, 2016

You’ve most likely heard the word “innovation” used recently. Maybe it was said in relation to addressing large-scale challenges like climate change or global health issues. Or perhaps you saw it used in an advertisement for a new product that promised to change your world. (You never knew how much you needed a selfie stick until it was invented, right?). However, it’s not a word that’s associated as much as it should be with the nonprofit sector. In truth, our sector is actually uniquely placed to be – and often is – a leader in innovation. The nonprofit space is filled with examples of organizations steadily pursuing bold ideas and solving complex problems in new ways with limited resources – expressing innovation at its best.

There are a lot of misconceptions about innovation, or more often, a lack of clarity around what it is. We at Community Resource Exchange (CRE) define innovation as any change that creates a new dimension of performance or a new approach to solving problems. Incremental, practical improvements on a regular basis can build innovation. Contrary to popular myth, innovation is rarely a disruptive “aha!” moment or the work of a lone genius, nor is it something that has to be perfected to be implemented.

We see firsthand the real, tangible value of innovation in the nonprofit sector through CRE’s Innovation Bootcamp. An accessible introduction to CRE’s Innovation Practice, these labs give clients a dedicated space to incubate ideas and learn new tools to efficiently test and build their designs. In the last year we’ve worked with over 30 nonprofits to help implement innovation practices in the workplace. For example, Bridge Street Development Corporation (BSDC), a nonprofit that builds partnerships with businesses, government, and other community stakeholders to provide civic and economic opportunities to the residents of central Brooklyn, has incorporated our innovation methodologies to rethink and overhaul its program outreach to seniors.

BSDC worked with CRE to use both journey mapping and rapid prototyping methods to start thinking differently about its programs and how to promote them. Journey mapping is a simple framework to help visualize the entire flow of a stakeholder’s experience from beginning to end, often in relation to an issue. It reveals all the touchpoints a stakeholder has with the issue in question, from before they decide to “enroll” to the point at which they disengage. Rapid prototyping is about developing inexpensive mockups to quickly test and refine solutions. Rapid prototyping and field testing allow for feedback from target audiences to understand what’s working and how to continually move ideas forward.

Through the journey-mapping process, BSDC discovered that its current outreach to seniors contained unclear messaging regarding eligibility criteria for funded programs – an issue its team had not realized before. As a result of this unclear messaging, BSDC was receiving a lot of applications from people who did not qualify for its programs. By using rapid prototyping, the team was able to test and implement what seemed on the surface to be small changes, like renaming a program, monthly activity flyers and a flyer detailing the eligibility guidelines. Through its work with CRE, BSDC has also seen a need to explore further funding options so that it is able to provide services to people who don’t meet the existing program criteria. The BSDC team is ready to implement these changes throughout September and has already received great community feedback about the new materials.

The BSDC example shows that innovation doesn’t have to be a single disruptive moment. Innovation can be as simple as a series of small changes that add up to a noticeable difference. Through the CRE Innovation Bootcamp, we provided customized one-to-one implementation coaching to BSDC over a two-month period. BSDC also committed internal hours, and we had regular communication in between our formal meetings.

Here are five simple ideas to jumpstart innovation in your workplace. These tips are a great way to make a difference today, but they can also be implemented as part of a longer-term innovation plan.

*     Make space and time for innovation: Innovation is a disciplined practice, not a one-off moment. Make time to brainstorm ideas and use other innovative techniques in a purposeful way.

*     Ask questions: What do you need to learn about your problem and potential solutions?

*     Look at problem solving from the client or end-user’s perspective: Anchor your problem-framing and solution-generation in the needs and motivations of your clients.

*     Don’t be afraid to test and improve continually: Quickly experiment with some promising ideas – and don’t be afraid to fail. Role play scenarios. Mock up solutions. Listen to feedback.

*     Understand that innovation takes practice: Small alterations to mindset and behavior will help innovation become the new normal.

CRE will continue to build our innovation practice over the rest of the year – integrating key methodologies into our ongoing consulting work while also launching innovation-specific offerings. We will help clients use innovative methods to (re)design programs, improve their constituents’ experience of their organization and embed a culture of innovation within their organizations. We’d love to hear about your experiences as you work toward a more innovative workplace!


Katie Leonberger leads Community Resource Exchange (CRE), a nonprofit consulting firm that gives nonprofits the means to build sustainable organizations that lead to social change. She specializes in organizational development, planning and innovation and leads client engagements in these areas. Fiona Kanagasingam is a senior consultant at Community Resource Exchange where she heads up their innovation practice and specializes in strategic planning, leadership and professional development and talent management.

Katie Leonberger
Fiona Kanagasingam