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How to Redefine "Innovation" and Transform Your Charity's Work

How to Redefine "Innovation" and Transform Your Charity's Work

Man looking up at a pinboard of ideas

For better or worse, the nonprofit sector has become obsessed with the concept of innovation.

My inbox these days is filled with announcements about new social innovation funds, design thinking workshops, and the latest tech promising to make the world a better place.

And while most nonprofit leaders agree that they want to change their way of doing things to increase social impact, many don’t know how, and fewer think they have the resources to do it. And it’s not just in Canada: this is a problem for nonprofits worldwide, who struggle with an innovation-aspiration problem. 

Are charities equipped to innovate?  

For nonprofits that are struggling to keep their programs funded, developing a culture that supports innovation seems completely unrealistic. But it doesn’t have to be. Sure, your charity isn’t ready to implement artificial intelligence yet, but innovation for you might be trying a new tax receipting tool that cuts down time, introducing a compensation policy for your staff, updating your bylaws, or conducting a new survey to inform choices in your 2020 strategic plan. 

In fact, one of the biggest barriers to innovation is its definition. It’s hard to adopt a concept without a solid understanding of what it is. Although innovation is critical in our new era of change, the term has turned into a buzzword. If you Google the term “innovation”, you’ll get about 30 different definitions showing just how widely the concept is used. 

Innovation is doing something different to create value

I love the above definition by Tim Kastelle. Innovation is about responding to change in a creative and meaningful way, such as generating new ideas, conducting research, improving processes or revamping programs. At another level, it’s also about the culture within your organization. One where your staff and volunteers are dedicated to continuous improvement and relevance

At Imagine Canada, we’re on our own journey to take a more holistic and incremental view of innovation. We’re working to continually improve our processes, our culture, and our programs. For us that takes many forms— such as the gradual introduction of agile management principles, investing in our infrastructure, and working in a more collaborative and networked way. It also means quicker cycles of work built on a foundation of data, stakeholder empathy, and experimentation. 

Building adaptive leadership in an era of change

We invite you to join us on this path as we discover what innovation means to us, and to the charitable sector at large. This spring our Standards Program is excited to be hosting Summit 2019, bringing together charities and nonprofits focused on doing good, better. We’ll be talking about continual improvement, diving into the messy reality of change management in an era of flux, and hearing from leaders across the country about how they’ve approached innovation, as well as techniques and frameworks to do the same. 

Put aptly by Asha Curran & Henry Timms in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, we should resist the “dinosaurs vs. unicorns” narrative that sees long-standing charities being overshadowed by the “next big thing.” The social and environmental impact created by our sector merits far more attention than it currently receives, let alone the more than $169 billion we add to the Canadian economy each year. But at the same time, we should resist the idea that our strong history is enough to keep the sector relevant into the future. To do that, we’ll need to keep innovating— in the many small, iterative ways that matter the most.

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