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How to Fix the Nonprofit World’s “Innovation-Aspiration” Problem

Nonprofits know they need to change–but they’re pretty sure they don’t know how.

Published on 8.9.17 by Ben Paynter | Fast Company

Nonprofits are suffering from what’s been dubbed an “innovation-aspiration” problem: While 80% of the top 145 nonprofit leaders say the sector needs to change practices in order to make greater societal gains, only 40% believe they have the capacity to do that, according to a survey by Bridgespan, a nonprofit consultancy, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The results of that survey appear a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review report entitled “Is Your Nonprofit Built For Sustained Innovation?” The answer to the question posed in the headline, of course, is “obviously not” for most organizations. “This gap worries us because most respondents say that if they don’t come up with fresh solutions to the sector’s myriad challenges… they won’t achieve the large scale impact they seek,” writes Nidhi Sahni, a Bridgespan partner and co-author in a memo accompanying the report’s release. Many cash-strapped groups are trapped in a cycle of business as usual, which amounts to plodding gains instead of the large (and ultimately cost-efficient) impacts necessary to close educational, nutritional, or health care gaps.

In a buzzword-driven era, the report notes, many nonprofits may have lost sight of what innovation really means and why it should be coveted. Per the researchers’ definition, innovation is “a break from practice large or small, that leads to significant positive social impact.” The team goes on to point out six common elements that groups making breakthroughs generally share.

Those, in still quite buzzword-filled terms, are: “catalytic leadership” (empowering employees to take initiative), a “curious culture” (questioning classic assumptions and challenge the status quo), “diverse teams” (with different backgrounds and skill sets for more perspective), “porous boundaries” (sharing knowledge across both the organization and its beneficiaries), “idea pathways” (a formal structure for generating, testing, and rolling out new concepts), and “ready resources” (investing in the money, time, and probably toolkit required to make all of this happen).

On the leadership front, Higher Achievement, an academic mentoring group for at-risk middle schoolers in Baltimore, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh and Richmond, Virginia, which has created its own set of key performance indicators, easily tracked things like school attendance and performance that allows staffers who might have a new way to encourage learning or enthusiasm try it, and then properly grade the result (while maintaining a core curriculum, of course). The excitement of a more involved staff may spread to those the aid: In general, their students exhibit reading and math gains that are well ahead of their learning curves well ahead of their peers.

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