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Allison Gauss
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4 Ways to Create a Culture of Innovation

It’s a lot easier to talk about innovation than it is to actually make it happen.

When it comes to the day-to-day operations of a social impact organization, limited resources and the need to address existing problems can force innovation to take a backseat. To foster a work culture centered around innovation, you must give your team opportunities to be creative and experiment with new ideas. Even a small exercise can lead to your nonprofit’s next big idea.

Here are four practical ways to nurture an innovative work culture at your organization. Use these suggestions to spark your team’s creativity and uncover new ideas to help you operate more effectively.

1. Quarterly “Pie-in-the-Sky” Brainstorms

One drill that hockey players use to become better skaters is called “overskating.” Whenever players skate, they are thinking about controlling their body, keeping their balance, and staying in the right position. In overskating drills, players purposely skate faster than they feel they can control. They push themselves to go so fast that they are likely to fall down and, in doing so, learn to control their body at greater speeds and become overall better skaters.

You can put your staff through a similar exercise. By removing the restrictions that typically guide your decisions, you can unlock a new outlook and drive from your team.

Periodically gather your nonprofit’s staff for a “pie-in-the-sky” brainstorm to discuss what you would do if anything was possible.

Here are some great questions to get the discussion started:

  • If money were no object, how would you solve a problem or fulfill your mission?
  • If we could add a whole new program, what would it be?
  • What organization or business inspires you and makes you think “I want to be like them”? What approach or lessons would you take from them?

This is an opportunity for everyone at your nonprofit to think big, and it’s important that you listen and be open to others’ ideas. To create a culture of innovation, you must show your team that their ideas and opinions matter. Their initial ideas may not be feasible, but they can lead to more practical ideas that are doable. And you can hold onto those big, audacious dreams to help guide your long-term strategy.

Consider holding these brainstorms once per quarter, and center each one around a specific theme or aspect of your mission to focus on. An open-minded brainstorm can revitalize your approach to programs, development, marketing, and more.

2. Attend an Innovation Conference or Event

As the social and private sectors become hungrier for innovation, tons of related events, meet-ups, conferences, and symposia are emerging to nurture creative exercises and ideas. Part of what makes events like these so thought-provoking and inspirational is that they force attendees out of their bubble. Nonprofit professionals not only leave the beehive of the office, but they also get to meet and collaborate with people from other cause sectors and from the for-profit world.

This approach to fostering a culture of innovation doesn’t have to be a big expense. With conferences all over North America and shorter events (even happy hours) available locally, nonprofits can share and learn close to home or on a budget. A quick Google search will uncover tons of conferences and lists of innovation-focused events.

The benefit of attending events like this is obviously to make connections for your own nonprofit, but also to hear the basic things that the other organizations are doing and how they are confronting some of their toughest challenges.”

-Julie Clugage of Team4Tech on her experience at the Collaborative + Classy Awards

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3. Bring Someone New to the Table

Sometimes the next step toward innovation isn’t taking your team somewhere else, but bringing in someone new. For nonprofits specifically, you can discover the best way to help by fostering an ongoing dialogue with the communities you serve. For example, if you work at a food bank, your team probably has tons of facts about hunger in your region, but the people you serve live that reality every day. They can share insights and roadblocks you may never have considered and offer suggestions on how to help.

One way to bring in these important voices is to include representatives of these communities in your board or programs committees. Town halls, surveys, and social media are also good ways to get feedback and new ideas.

When you already know so much about your cause or mission, it can be easy to stop looking for new perspectives. But if you want to succeed, your social impact organization should always be learning from your community. Absorbing their experiences and insights could spark your nonprofit’s next big idea.

4. Shadow Your Team Members

Even if you’re an expert in your cause, you may not be an expert in all the workings of your nonprofit. Shadowing coworkers in other roles can help you not only better understand how your organization functions, but it can also lead to collaboration and creativity. For example, after shadowing a programs officer, someone who works in development might gain new insight into the impact their revenue creates. This could help them refine the way they appeal to donors or apply for grants and sponsorships. The programs officer, on the other hand, could learn from development which programs interest donors.

Shadowing a coworker can be as big or small of a commitment as you’d like. For a more immersive experience, staff could shadow each other for a day, but even sitting in on a few everyday tasks can open their eyes to different aspects of each other’s work. Much like bringing in community members or attending a conference, the practice of shadowing others creates opportunities for brainstorming and collaboration.

To nurture a culture of innovation at your organization, you have to give people the opportunity to create. By incorporating these exercises into your nonprofit, you can help your team think big, find new solutions, and break down barriers. Innovation sometimes seems like serendipity or genius, but any work culture can take steps to foster it. Why not yours?

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