In my previous post I wrote about how to find your perfect project idea. This post aimed to help you engage others in brainstorming ideas, defining priorities and choosing the best idea for the moment. I did not highlight the importance of innovation. Or: how to find a novel idea.

What is innovative?

The key thing to understand about the concept of innovation is that it is relative. An idea may be new and exciting to the community you serve, while it may be an old idea in another context and not innovative at all there. Being innovative does not mean you need to invent a wheel. Innovation is also not necessarily about implementing big changes. Simply put, an innovative idea is an idea that is new to the context in which you use it.

But I am not Einstein!

Some people are wired to come up with new ideas all the time. But maybe you are someone whose energy blocks when the words novel or innovative are used. These words can sound so ambitious and inventor-esque. No worries! This is not going to hold you back! You do not need to be an inventor to be able to come up with innovative ideas for your nonprofit work.

New perspective

If you want to bring new ideas to your work, it helps to find a new perspective to look at things.

Your own new perspective

You can make yourself look at reality from a fresh perspective. You can transport yourself to a new environment, by going for a walk in the woods for instance. Or you can imagine yourself to be someone else: what would I recommend doing if I were Elon Musk? What if I were a school kid in this situation? What if I were an actress? If this feels weird to do on your own, you can make it a role playing game with your team.

A new perspective from others

You can also ask others for their take on the situation. What strikes them as odd? What would they do? You can ask them in a targeted way, in a meeting for instance. Or you can ask more randomly online. Some companies institutionalize this external perspective by setting up a Kids Council, where a selected group of kids provides (un)solicited advice to the CEO on a regular basis. Or they invite a mystery guest to pose as customer, and report back on the sales process as they experienced it.

A new perspective from different sectors

You can also look at other sectors for answers. Many people feel the nonprofit sector is highly specific – and it is. But it can really help to know a bit about practices in other sectors. Many marketing and management concepts from for-profit practice for instance are useful to nonprofit leadership. Of course, you may need to adapt them to your specific circumstances… And there you are, developing a new idea for your work!

Attitude of asking – not knowing

Bringing in new ideas and perspectives only requires an open mind. An attitude of asking: what can I learn from this? And: how can I apply this in my own situation?



Fostering innovation

So how can you make sure that your team is open and actively on the lookout for new ideas? First of all, by fostering an inquisitive mindset. You can do that by creating space for brainstorming and experimenting. In combination with role modeling this. You need to make sure that in every conversation you take time to probe a new idea. To look at it from different angles and to ask: what can we take from this? And: how can we apply this in our organization and work?

Do not go on autopilot with “Oh no, we tried that ten years ago already and it did not work”. Remember, many people did not believe in online learning until COVID-19 came along. That does not mean that it did not work before. It only means that people never gave online learning a real chance because there was no need for them to do so.

Structural and structured attention

I said ‘take time’ on purpose. Probing ideas and looking for their value takes much more time than dismissing them offhand. And, certainly, more time than doing what you have always done without questioning your practice. Fostering a probing attitude in your team also takes time in and of itself. If you want to invest in this, you must take it seriously and ensure that you pay attention to this in a structured and structural manner. Create time in your own calendar. Schedule time in your team for new discoveries. Have unallocated time for your team to experiment with new approaches and ideas.

Embed the other perspective

As I wrote above, some organizations embed generating input from a new perspective in their routines, by for instance setting up focus groups or a Kids Council. Or by asking their users online, through polls and such, for their feedback and ideas.

Plan for keeping it fresh

Whenever you start embedding people with a different perspective in your routines, be careful to keep it fresh! That is, make sure the members of a focus group change regularly, get new kids on your council, etc. Another good practice to keeping a fresh perspective is to be always on the look-out for new partnerships. Any collaboration with a new partner will help you look at your organization in a different light – if you let it!

Students and interns

Offering internships or possibilities for students’ research in your organization is another way of institutionalizing obtaining new perspectives. And since these arrangements are always temporary, there is less risk that these students become too much part of your operations to be able to give fresh input.

OK but WHY?

You may have been wondering why it would be important to renew your ideas, projects and approach. Why not continue doing things you know how to do perfectly? Simply put – because the world around you changes. If you want to remain relevant to the community you serve you will need to adjust your approach to their changed circumstances and needs. If you want to attract new talents to work with you, they need to feel there is space for their own contributions. And yes, most donors, too, like to be part of an attempt to improve performance and results through new ideas and approaches. In short, if you cannot adjust to a changed environment your approach will become less effective and your work will become less relevant. And you will be less able to achieve your objectives.

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