How Innovation Can Turn Bad News Into Hope and Progress

By Contributing Author
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Moving From a Culture of “What now?” to a Culture of “What if…?

“We’re sc#^wed.”

I heard that statement from a fellow visitor while at the Denver Zoo with my kids, admiring Mongolian Przewalski’s horses and imagining when we could travel together to see these creatures running wild. I was torn between covering my girls’ ears or schooling the guy who had just finished reading an educational sign by the horses exhibit about climate change, mineral extraction, and the future of the wild horses and the Mongolian steppe.

I get it. Look, I’m that guy who gets 50 to 100 bad-news emails a day from scientists and conservationists around the world – messages about illegal wildlife trade of ivory or rhino horn, of oil and gas and shipping moving without precautions into the Arctic in a “cold” rush for previously inaccessible resources and routes, or of the rapid decline of sharks due to the Chinese love of shark fin soup.

It’s the down-side of my job. It’s depressing. It’s dismal. It leaves you questioning the integrity of humanity and the future both of nature and of this human community well over 7 billion strong. When you hear these messages, you just can’t help but say “What now???”

But I have hope.

Not just because I’ve seen how the institution I work with, World Wildlife Fund, has helped turn the tide and saved wildlife, wildlands, and people all at once in places like Namibia or Nepal. I have hope because WWF has embarked on a journey to change our collective response to environmental challenges from “What now?” to “What if…?”

Prompted by clear signals from the Living Planet Index, our CEO Carter Roberts took the World Wildlife Fund on a journey 12 months ago to fundamentally change how we viewed our investments. The Living Planet Report, a scientific assessment by WWF of the state of nature and the human footprint, revealed that despite battles won, we were losing the war, and losing badly. Status quo was not going to cut it.

We were given a clear mandate: we needed to play to win with our best ideas, and quickly jettison the strategies that weren’t working or not moving the needle far enough, fast enough, on our goals. We needed to figure out how to quickly scale the best ideas that work and look at our strategies, partnerships, and investments with disruptive questions that would take us from simply being satisfied, to fundamental success.

We realized that we needed to embrace a culture of extrapreneurship, looking outside our sector for ideas to solve environmental problems. We must encourage our best and brightest to accept that we might not have all the answers in our organization, but those from other walks of life just might hold the keys to at least part of the solution from which we can learn and build.

Fundamentally, we are shifting from a culture of risk aversion to being more experimental and not fearing failure. We are shifting from a culture of transactional success for the environment (good investments), to one of transformational progress toward our goals (great investments) using social, political, and funding leverage.

We’ve raised the bar for our investments, but we’ve also opened up to new ideas for solving our biggest environmental problems, no matter how quixotic they seem at first, and no matter whether they come from an executive or from an intern. Though it takes time for such a cultural change, we’re moving to a place where a disruptive thinker – who asks “What if…?” – is a treasured member of a strategy team.

Talk is cheap. What have we done practically? For starters, we’ve created a new $5 million annual internal fund that can support the best and most promising innovative ideas. And these ideas are evaluated carefully by a diverse group of experienced professionals who simultaneously embrace the unimaginable while asking hard questions about whether an idea should be invested in to become a concept, or if a concept should be launched, or if a proven project should be invested to scale and multiply for even bigger impact. This approach alone is a game-changer not only for our institution, but for the nonprofit community.

A Practical Example

Five years ago, if someone had said we could work with tourism to create positive change, laughter would fill the room, particularly from those that worked day-in and day-out to ensure the threat of tourism did not destroy marine turtle habitats, pollute seagrass beds, or create erosion in fragile watersheds. Today, based on real proof of concepts in Africa, we’re embracing disruptive thinking: What if, we could harness the fastest growing tourism segment – adventure travel – to help transform conservation in our priority places?

Today, we’re exploring ways to redirect the investments of this sector which was once considered a threat. We are together ensuring that responsible travel directly supports local communities that live with and tolerate wildlife, such that the price tag on trips to these places to see critters and charismatic landscapes make wildlife worth far more alive than dead for local communities and governments.

And we’re investing in this concept to see if it can get to a place where it can have impact at scale beyond one country. If it does, we’re elated – we’ve moved the needle for wildlife and local communities who now both benefit. If it does not make substantive progress, we kill the investment and work aggressively to learn from it quickly.

Embrace New Ideas

Such is the nature of innovation and disruptive thinking – embrace new ideas no matter how orthogonal they might seem; test and invest in them with a combination of experience and openness to risk; fail fast and learn fully when the idea doesn’t work and invest even further to scale a great idea for the mission. And never, ever, say “What now?” again. Only ask “What if….?” What if we tried this? What if we partnered with them? What if?

As a Leadership Council member during the 2014 CLASSY Awards competition, I was able to learn about organizations and programs that exemplify this exact ethos – a culture of “What if…?” – and are setting a new standard for innovation and scale.

And they give me even more hope, as their disruptive thinking and innovation just might save the world.

Editor’s Note: At the time of writing, Jeffrey Parrish, Ph.D, was the Senior Director for Conservation Resources for the World Wildlife Fund. He is currently Vice President for Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Network.

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