Higher Achievement’s catalytic leadership featured in the Stanford Social Innovation Review

Is Your Nonprofit Built for Sustained Innovation?

Published on August 1, 2017 by Nidhi Sahni, Laura Lanzerotti, Amira Bliss, & Daniel Pike |  Stanford Social Innovation Review

Innovation. The word is so ubiquitous, it’s lost much of its buzz and most of its meaning. Nevertheless, our research suggests that most leaders of nonprofits believe that to advance their missions, they must imagine and create new approaches to solving vexing social challenges.

Recently The Bridgespan Group, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, surveyed 145 nonprofit leaders on their organizations’ capacity to innovate, which we define as a break from practice, large or small, that leads to significant positive social impact.1 For the large majority of this group, innovation is more than just a catchall slogan—it’s an urgent imperative to which 80 percent of them aspire.

The problem is, just 40 percent of these would-be innovators say their organizations are set up to do so. This gap worries us, because most respondents say that if they don’t come up with fresh solutions to the social sector’s myriad challenges—such as improving the academic performance of at-risk middle schoolers, increasing African farmers’ crop yields, or dramatically reducing the number of diarrhea-related deaths of young children worldwide—they won’t achieve the large-scale impact they seek.

If that weren’t concerning enough, these organizations are confronting a volatile environment that will likely amplify their struggles and widen this aspiration gap. Roughly half of the survey’s respondents say that their organizations are subject to regulatory shocks or policy shifts. (We fielded this survey before the Trump Administration’s federal budget was introduced.) And many others face growing competition from other social sector organizations for funding, talent, and influence.

According to our survey, most nonprofits know that delivering the same services in the same manner is insufficient. But unfortunately, most also struggle to anticipate emerging opportunities for distinctive offerings or approaches that might extend their reach or magnify their impact. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Deviating from the norm—to pursue novel principles, embrace unorthodox thinking, and learn from instructive failure—is difficult. Like their peers in the for-profit world and the public sector, it often takes a crisis for nonprofit leaders to truly break with the status quo.

The answer to nonprofits becoming proactive and effective at innovation lies largely in committing to a continuous, intentional approach. Despite our tendency to celebrate “heroic” chief executives and entrepreneurs, innovation rarely comes from one go-for-broke, masterstroke of genius. For most organizations, meaningful progress against the innovation-aspiration gap requires systematic exploration, experimentation, and trial and error, where learning compounds over time. Innovation is neither magic nor mystery; high-performing nonprofits demonstrate that organizations can deliberately cultivate the capacity to innovate. (For those who want to dig deeper, we have created a suite of free, online resources to help identify areas for improvement, and access downloadable tools for learning, planning, and action.)

Six Elements for Building Innovation Capacity

Organizations that excel at continuously generating innovations over time can look very different from each other. They can work in dissimilar fields or deliver poles-apart services; their assets and capabilities may vary widely. But through our research, we have identified six elements common to nonprofits with a high capacity to innovate:

1. Catalytic leadership that empowers staff to solve problems that matter

2. A curious culture, where staff look beyond their day-to-day obligations, question assumptions, and constructively challenge each other’s thinking as well as the status quo

3. Diverse teams with different backgrounds, experiences, attitudes, and capabilities—the feedstock for growing an organization’s capacity to generate breakthrough ideas

4. Porous boundaries that let information and insights flow into the organization from outside voices (including beneficiaries) and across the organization itself

5. Idea pathways that provide structure and processes for identifying, testing, and transforming promising concepts into needle-moving solutions

6. The ready resources—funding, time, training, and tools—vital to supporting innovation work

On average, survey respondents who say they are meeting or exceeding their innovation aspirations also reported doing better across each of these six elements than those who say they are falling short. Although this result is based on self-reported data from a relatively small sample of social-sector leaders, it suggests a strong correlation between these six elements of organizational capacity and innovation performance. The correlation is also consistent with what we learned in interviews with more than 20 leading experts and practitioners, and from a review of academic and professional literature on what drives innovation in organizations.

Element One: Catalytic Leadership

Organizations that consistently innovate have leaders at all levels—managers and executives—who empower teams to push the limits of what’s possible, even as they delineate the boundaries of what’s in play. They understand that innovation flourishes when the need and space for it are clearly defined, and staff are then encouraged to create and explore. Deftly managing the tension between clear parameters and creative license is challenging but critical—more than half of the survey’s respondents rated committed leadership as the most important factor for innovation of all six elements.

Leadership that catalyzes innovation:

  • Sets an inspiring vision
  • Defines the questions and outcomes to focus on, and then gives people wide latitude to innovate within those boundaries
  • Models behaviors others should emulate

Consider Higher Achievement. Based in Washington, DC, and founded in 1975, this nonprofit provides daily academic mentoring, summer learning, and social-emotional skill development to enhance the academic performance of middle schoolers in low-income neighborhoods in four cities: Baltimore, the DC Metro area, Pittsburgh, and Richmond, Va. CEO Lynsey Wood Jeffries and her leadership team do a range of things to spark ideas and initiatives within a clearly defined space.

Jeffries ensures that Higher Achievement uses data as a “flashlight,” which illuminates opportunities to innovate and improve. All of the organization’s 85 staffers regularly review 11 key performance indicators (KPIs), including students’ average daily attendance and current academic performance. Those KPIs frame biweekly discussions between line staff and supervisors across the organization and guide decision-making.

Jeffries and her leadership team, including Chief of Programs Mike Di Marco, provide their colleagues with clarity around where their program model is “fixed,” and where there is “flex” to experiment and adapt. For example, to maintain consistency across its subject matter, Higher Achievement uses one fixed, standard curriculum, which staffers can’t change. But there is flexibility around adding supplemental supports, so long as they align with the standard and meet student-development criteria. So when the data showed that eighth graders were disengaging during the spring semester, after they found out where they would attend high school, a staffer pushed to introduce a study-skills curriculum to smooth students’ transition.

“Instead of having a long conversation about this new approach, she was able to demonstrate that the idea falls within that [flexible] category, and here’s the data to support it—and then it happened,” says Jeffries. “We’re going to test it and if the attendance rebounds, we’ll try it in other sites.”

When the data warrant it, Jeffries asks her colleagues challenging questions that spur them to think big, such as: “What would it take for us to place 80 percent of our middle schoolers in selective, high-performing high schools?” When she sees glimmers of something new working well, she “shouts it from the rooftops and makes sure that people hear that praise.” The result? A randomized control trial showed that Higher Achievement’s programs give children academic gains equivalent to an extra 48 days of learning in math and an extra 30 days in reading.

When it comes to catalyzing innovation efforts, Jeffries says, “It’s my job, first and foremost, to uphold the culture.” We agree. A raft of academic literature and large-scale surveys suggest that culture is central to innovation.2 Through their own behaviors, leaders who aim to innovate can and should shape the organization’s culture, which is the second critical element for sustaining innovation.

Read about the rest of the 6 elements for building innovation capacity on the Stanford Social Innovation Review today!