(Nonprofits+Politics)2.0

June 17, 2009

Examples of Innovation: Fundraising, Service Delivery, & Community Outreach

I had planned to write about what Rule 2 – open beats closed – of Twitter’s Ten Rules for Radical Innovators can mean for nonprofit innovators.  But, there were a few great pieces on nonprofit innovation in news lately that had me thinking about the way I think about innovation, and provide great examples for us to learn from.

Working in an association of nonprofit human service agencies I participate in a lot of discussions about how our sector can innovate, and how we can support it.  Lately we’ve been talking a lot about diversifying revenues, social enterprises, and other ways to innovate business practices.

And, in a way, associations have been helping industries in America innovate since they were recognized in federal tax law 1913.  For the last 33 years, for example, the Providers’ Council has used economies of scale to negotiate more competitive Dental and other Insurance coverages for our members, and we now have 8 partners that help nonprofits save money.

However, it’s important for nonprofit leaders to remember that there are many other, though perhaps more discrete, ways to innovate in your organization.

I first started thinking about this as I was reading MSNBC’s coverage of the pain that the nonprofit sector is in – and trends on how we’re facing it, which I should thank Amy Neumann (someone I’m glad to be following) for sharing.  Using Elkhart, Ind. as a case-study are experiencing, including the Elkhart County United WayElkhart County Salvation ArmyBig Brothers Big Sisters of Elkhart CountyChurch Without WallsChurch Community Services, and YWCA of Elkhart County.

After reading their thorough, excellent summary of the issues that many communities face – reduced giving for a variety of reasons and through a variety of sources + increased demand – I was expecting to read about how nonprofits were launching social enterprises; finding cheaper, greener energy; and otherwise innovating their revenue streams.

What I found was innovation in fundraising that reminded me to look beyond my preconceived notions of innovation.  So often we start thinking about our area of focus, our silo, our project at hand, and we might not think about areas on the opposite side of the organization that we can transform.  Whether it’s saving money, raising money, delivering services, advocating change, or any of the countless other aspects of an organization, there may be an opportunity to increase efficiency, efficacy, or other enhancement.

Here’s one great example that incorporates partnerships with businesses, technology, and a new look at how fundraisers can be held – virtually:

The [Elkhart County Salvation Army] staff also dreamed up a new fundraising plan: The “No Bells” auction launched in mid-May lists several hundred items online, everything from pizzas and autographed baseballs to cars and teeth-whitening service. The idea is to drum up cash through the auction for the Salvation Army while also creating some foot traffic for struggling local businesses.

Another mission-driven new initiative I want to mention from this article was led by the Elkhart County United Way who, with “less cash to disburse … parlayed its considerable clout into a new role — as coordinator of the county’s biggest food drive to date.”  They created a true community collaboration by leading

an effort to connect six local pantries to form a county-wide food network — both  United Way members and non-members. The organization enrolled the local newspaper to distribute the food donation bags, implored local sports teams and congregations to provide volunteers and called together church leaders from all over the county to get behind the food drive.

This is a very inspiring example of how a community can band together to ensure the most vulnerable among them don’t go hungry.  It also shows how an organization can stay dynamic and respond to circumstances; the United Way recognized a new opportunity to help lead the nonprofit community and seized it.

Serendipitously, almost immediately after finishing this article, I caught a recap on the great action that the United Way Mass Bay & Merrimack Valley held.  Meghan Keaney (@MeghKeaney, Director of Communications at the United Way), other staff, and many, many community members held a flash mob at South Station to “awareness of a very real problem tied to the recession we’re suffering through — a falloff in charitable giving.” (here’s more info if you’re curious)

This is a fantastic example of an organization leveraging social media and a new type of action to generate community and media awareness for their cause.  Be sure you check out the video clips from the WBZ story.

Each of these examples reflect organizations that recognized the innovation imperative created by our current challenging economic times and applied them to various areas of their organization – from fundraising, service delivery, to community outreach. Two prevailing themes seem to include leveraging technology such as social media and online auctioning and creating meaningful collaborations and partnership.  One constant is thinking differently and trying new things.

Just remember to stay innovative – even as you innovate.  There are a lot of moving parts in every organization and lots of areas to miss opportunities to do something different.  If you notice that you’re focused on innovating one process, program, or aspect of your organization, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself, or others around you: what else can we do differently? what haven’t we thought about yet?

Also, remember that while innovation starts from the top, there are many talented employees in your organization who may have unique insights into opportunities for improvement in their area of the organization.  Be sure to leverage that knowledge to make sure you’re not missing opportunities and empower others to think innovatively.

So what new strategies and tactics is your organization taking on? Whether in business practices, communications, fundraising, service delivery, or something else – I’d love to hear about the great examples you’d like to share.

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2 Comments »

  1. I LOVE the United Way flash mob! I’m thinking now of so many other applications of that idea. And it’s so great to find someone else in the blogosphere who’s from the particular human services side of the nonprofit world!

    Comment by melindaklewis — December 10, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

  2. […] and advocacy work, hunh??); it includes some really cool video of the action. And here’s the blog post that initially led me to the […]

    Pingback by Flashmobs and other crazy stuff that just might work « Classroom to Capitol — February 15, 2010 @ 12:25 pm


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