The “Necessary Challenge”: Innovation in the Social Sector

By Clayton Lord

What is “innovation,” really?

Angela Garcia of Global Links

For Angela Garcia, deputy director of a Pittsburgh-based medical supplies reuse nonprofit called Global Links, innovation looks like a six-partner collaboration cemented by a for-profit technology developer that aims to drastically simplify the way that different types of gently-used goods (ranging from medical scrubs to lumber) transition from one organization to another for reuse. And it has been really hard.

Innovation in the social sector, it turns out, is an exercise in cracking open a strong sense of inertia and injecting into it the light to examine practices and the permission to take risks to change them.

For Garcia, that meant explaining four times to an incredulous CEO at a nonprofit that provides uniforms for entry-level medical staff and others that Global Links really didn’t want money for the scrubs, they just wanted to facilitate the transaction.

What is it that makes innovation so hard in the social sector? Why does this inertia exist, among those of us trying to solve systemic social issues? Why, so often, do we get stuck just trying to fix un-innovative, static internal processes, leaving true external social innovation to solve the world’s problems out of reach?

In part to answer this question, The Forbes Funds, a supporting organization of IS member, the Pittsburgh Foundation, focused on strengthening the capacity and impact of community-based nonprofits, partnered with Independent Sector’s NGen Fellows to do some qualitative and quantitative research. The results have just been released as The Necessary Challenge: Understanding and Fostering Innovation in the Social Sector. Through a set of interviews and nearly 300 survey responses, the research team set out to interrogate why organizations in the social sector—in particular nonprofits—seem to often have so much trouble embracing and fostering a culture of innovation.

In The Necessary Challenge, the team identified inherent realities of the social sector that need to be challenged in order to make embracing true innovation more possible.

  • Most organizations spend most of their time playing it safe—particularly organizations working from a mentality of scarcity, like most nonprofits. When asked to discuss moments of innovation, respondents mostly spoke about internal processes that ultimately fell far short of larger-scale product innovation to impact societal issues.
  • Strong barriers related to a lack of time money, and buy-in from others can make breaking from the status quo nearly impossible, particularly when paired with the day-to-day stress of running a nonprofit. While more than three-quarters of all the people who responded said their organization valued new ideas and/or viewed new ideas as core to their mission, almost two-thirds said they lacked time, money, or buy-in to actually pursue innovation.
  • While almost all employees feel, at some level, empowered to think innovatively, there is a general consensus that innovative thought emerges top-down—a belief that runs counter to most innovation success stories and that makes it harder to nimbly adapt to situations closer to the end user. Indeed, senior level people inside organizations (board members, CEOs, and people in the C-Suite) were much more likely to think of themselves and people at their level as the nucleus for innovative thought at the organization than people at other levels.
  • The social sector is challenged in terms of formal training in how to innovate, and tends to fall back into “informal,” and often infrequent, attempts to innovate instead of embracing innovation as something that needs to happen consistently and incrementally over time. Almost three-quarters of the people we talked to, when asked, talked about “organic” or “informal” forms of innovation—innovation lacking in structure.

To tackle these issues, and hopefully to mitigate issues like those brought up in the stories told by Angela Garcia, the report makes the following recommendations to the field:

  • Encourage organizations to move from reacting to crisis toward anticipating needs, both internally and externally. This will foster innovative practice and position them as leaders. Small innovative practices done routinely throughout an organization develop a culture of innovation.
  • Help organizations seeking to reduce barriers to innovation to loosen structures and be open to change—a state that may run counter to the day-to-day stress of running a nonprofit. Day-to-day challenges are opportunities for innovation.
  • Accelerate innovation by encouraging organizations to consider all levels of staff, as well as external stakeholders, as possible sources of inspiration. By engaging in innovation vertically, throughout the organization, it may be possible to capture and act upon more transformative adaptations over a shorter period of time.
  • Increase the speed and quality of innovation by educating staff on more formal, systematic approaches to innovation. The amount of organic/informal innovation that is happening indicates a desire to innovate, but may be indicative of a lack of knowledge of more formal alternatives, and in turn a decrease in efficiency and, possibly, sustained impact.
  • Empower innovators and champions throughout the hierarchy, and be cognizant of inherent biases. Knowing you’re likely to believe you are more innovative than others may allow you to see past that and embrace new ways of thinking.

If some of those issues can be tackled, who knows what innovations might be in store?

For Angela, pushing through some of the process issues has cracked open possibilities of partnership and delivery that have drastically enriched her organization’s ability to do its mission.

“Our warehouse is full of stuff, but it’s not about the stuff,” she says. “It’s about how to answer societal problems with this stuff. People need jobs, people need housing. People need better health outcomes. And they need to avoid costs where possible. I think innovation is about allowing everybody to play to their strengths and create an exponentially higher number of collaborations.”

In the end,” she says, “innovation is about getting organizations to collaborate and set their status quo aside, break the routine, and let go of things – that’s innovation. That’s what we need.”

Independent Sector’s 2014 American Express NGen Fellows

Clayton Lord is the vice president of local arts advancement at Americans for the Arts.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Arts, Culture, and Humanities, Common Goods, Innovation, IS Member, ISQ