If you look into the future of our sector with a hopeful eye on what the digital age will help us accomplish, you’re not alone. I read a chapter on innovation from David Neff and Randall Moss’, The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in a Digital Age, and now I’ve got to get my hands on the rest. What a picture can do for a thousand words, this chapter does for the entire book.
Authors David Neff and Randal Moss say the social sector won’t be the same in five years, thanks to the digital age. Nonprofit leaders must think and act like a start-up in order to deliver relevant services and capture scarce funding. They claim that successful start-up behavior is characterized by a dedication to the innovative process and constantly incubating ideas and testing them with passion, enthusiasm, patience and persistence. Having worked in the nonprofit sector for years, it’s thrilling to hear Moss and Neff set the bar for nonprofit leaders at this level of innovation. But don’t be daunted by the idea of behaving like a start-up; the authors share many ways for getting started, including simple steps such as their Innovation Quiz located in the appendix of their book.
Neff and Moss draw you in by taking a fascinating look at innovation and how our definition has drifted by misuse and “unnovation,” or ideas that don’t actually advance a purpose or financial status. They explain that real innovation in their view aligns with Harvard Business Review blogger, Umair Haque: creativity can only be described as an innovation if the new process, product, service, or strategy results in (or is the result of) authentic, durable economic gains. Neff and Moss further elaborate that effective innovation is divided into two parts according to Joseph Schumpeter: 1) invention or an idea executed into being and 2) innovation or the ability to successfully apply the idea in practice.
So the real question becomes, “Do you focus your energy on creativity or on execution?” Neff and Moss agree with the research that supports the idea that while creativity is essential, the meaningful leverage is in the back end of ideas—the implementation.
For example, when the authors asked Wendy Harman of the Red Cross, “What were the obstacles and opportunities discovered in your [idea] development process?”
Her answer was, “This is tricky business! There are so many people who have to agree on common solutions for us to move forward. I’ve been humbled by how enthusiastic all the parties are in looking for the opportunities here but that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. It’s easy to talk about this issue but not so easy to take substantive steps forward.” Neff and Moss underscore this answer by claiming that every great idea is a lost opportunity if you don’t have a process in place to implement it.
With the authors’ definition of innovation and the understanding of its twofold process, do you feel your organization truly innovates? If not, what can you do to cultivate an environment where new ideas abound and have the chance to be tested? It’s time to find out and get yourself a copy of this book with me.
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