How Nonprofits Can Be Innovative without Changing What Works

Private foundations, public agencies, and corporations -- it seems they're all seeking "entrepreneurial" projects and people to fund. The positive side to this interest is that organizations proposing non-traditional, innovative approaches and the use of technology have new sources of funding open to them. The downside is that nonprofits offering basic services may feel left out of funding opportunities that stress innovation over core services. If your nonprofit provides basic services, and your programs and services are working well as-is--and your goal is to maintain them, not reinvent them--what can you do to keep your funding stream healthy?

Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial, innovative, innovation. These words are getting lots of play lately. In the business world, it's not new to feel constant pressure to be innovative and embrace technology. However, for community-based nonprofits, innovation doesn't always come naturally. If you provide food for low-income families, housing to the homeless, or counseling to sexual assault victims, it can be hard to see ways to innovate your service delivery. Furthermore, you may not see the need to innovate when what you're doing is effective and your priority is to keep doing what you're doing. How can you be innovative enough to keep the grant money flowing without changing your tried 'n true approaches to core services?

One approach is to innovate around what's working. If your programs are effective, maybe you can bring innovation to the operations side and how you manage your programs. If your organization has strong service delivery programs and program management infrastructure, perhaps there are opportunities to be innovative in the way you approach the sustainability of your programs and services.

Innovation Doesn't Mean Reinventing Everything

At the same time that donors are seeking  innovation from the projects they fund, they are also putting more emphasis on evidence-based interventions. Donors want new approaches, but they also want to fund what works. It's a challenging dynamic. To be able to respond, nonprofits have to choose their strategy carefully and present the donor with a project idea that balances innovative ideas with proven interventions.

In a grant proposal, a strategy for balancing the tension between innovative and established interventions can be to propose what you know works, but with little tweaks that will make your project look more responsive to the communities it serves, including:

  • Updating your communications strategy: How you deliver news about your organization is as important as what news you share. Social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are how people track current events. You don't have to jump on all of the popular social media channels at once, but you should choose at least one and maintain an active presence. In addition to engaging on social media, your organization should have a website. Your website should look professional, be regularly updated, and link visitors to the social media channels you use. If you don't have a website yet and aren't sure where to start, there are a number of easy, low-cost options like Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace. Having a steady presence online is important. Donors will Google your organization's name to learn more about it. You want them to see how active and engaged your organization is with the community it serves.
  • Offering internet-based services: If your organization provides in-person services like counseling,  you could consider offering options for online services. For example, instead of asking new clients to come to your office location for an evaluation or intake process, maybe you can add an intake or triage process through an online form that is submitted securely through your website. Or, taking the online service option a step further, maybe you could conduct some of your client meetings online through video chat services such as Skype or Viber. Offering online and video options is one way to expand your reach into your community without incurring the cost of additional brick 'n mortar locations. Of course, this isn't for everyone. Not every nonprofit offers services that can be done remotely and even those that can offer remote services will need to evaluate whether they have the resources to ensure client information can be kept secure.
  • Reframing your services: Another way for your organization to look dynamic and responsive to community needs is to take your core services and offer them to a new segment of the population.  For example, if your organization has traditionally focused on providing services to male veterans, using your core expertise of veterans services--which might involve training, job placement, housing, and financial counseling--you could create a program that offers the same services but targets female veterans. Since you're building off of your organization's core expertise, your existing staff will have the knowledge to help design the new project. In fact, most of what you'll be investing in will relate more to communicating your services to the new target population than building a new infrastructure for service delivery.

In each of the above examples, for the most part, the organization's core services, mission, and beneficiaries would remain the same. The primary change is how and where the organization markets its core services. To create an innovative project, or to be an innovative organization, you don't have to be cutting-edge on all fronts or propose new approaches for everything you do. Incremental change and a fresh approach (not necessarily a radical one) may be all you need to show a donor that your organization is dynamic and forward thinking.

"There's an App for That"

When "innovative approaches" are listed in a funding opportunity announcement, nonprofits often reflexively think that the donor expects them to create a mobile app. In some cases, this may be true. It's not uncommon to see "there's an app for that" thinking on the part of donors, and many donors are actively encouraging grantees to develop apps. In fact, it has become so common for donors to encourage app development that the nonprofit and NGO communities are beginning to voice concerns over the pressure to develop apps. Mobile phone apps can be useful, but they're not always what's needed.

This isn't to say that apps aren't worth exploring as one of your channels for innovation. There are many examples of nonprofits that have developed apps that do meet a need of the communities they serve (you can find examples profiled in the resource list below).  However, before jumping into developing an app, you'll want to make sure that it's going to be worth the investment. One way to do this is to survey your intended beneficiaries to find out if the app you have in mind is something they would be interested in using.

Nonprofit Adoption of Mobile Technology

Finding Your Innovation Area

If your organization's programs are successful at meeting your community's needs,  perhaps you'll choose to leave your programs essentially untouched. However, continue to look for other ways to introduce a fresh approach to your work. As in the examples above, maybe you can bring innovation in the way you communicate information about your services, or where you interact with the communities you serve. No matter what kind of work your organization does, or how big or small your budget, there are going to be opportunities to innovate. Innovation doesn't necessarily mean developing an app, and it doesn't necessarily mean adding a new service, but it does require bringing a new approach to some aspect of your work.