What is innovation, exactly? Innovation is finding new means of delivering your mission that expand your organisation’s work and impact in tangible, quantifiable ways. It’s a process, not an endpoint.
It’s not just big, paradigm-changing ideas that generate buzz and media coverage—it’s more likely to be grounded in smaller projects and ideas that aren’t flashy but that open new doors for organisations. And it’s not just the purview of entrepreneurs, tech start-ups, Silicon Valley businesses or large corporations. It’s relevant to every kind of work—and especially to not-for-profits, where staffers often rely upon finding efficiencies or making improvements to enhance their effectiveness, often with very limited resources.
Why is innovation important?
A successful innovation project can save an organisation money, improve quality of services, allow it to scale up and serve more people, boost accessibility, and attract funding and talent, among other benefits. As the rapid pace of technology advancement accelerates, innovation is more attainable than ever—even for resource-strapped non-profits.
Let's focus on an example. The social enterprise Umbo uses innovative technology to address inequality in access to healthcare in regional and rural Australia. Umbo helps provide access to allied health services, eliminating wait times and significant travel requirements. Technology supports Umbo's mission by enabling it to scale its impact in health, well-being and quality education. Using innovative technologies, Umbo can provide access to high quality allied health professionals while also providing a flexible working environment for its employees.
How can we innovate?
Just as a tree can’t thrive in poor soil, neither can innovation take root and grow without a solid and nurturing foundation. Without the right direction, incentives and success criteria, the most sophisticated tools can only go so far.
Innovation must be built into the very foundation of an organization. This foundation consists of five elements:
Leaders don’t have to be technologists to oversee an innovative team. In fact, the most important trait for an effective leader might be curiosity. Meanwhile employees who take these types of initiative and champion new approaches within an organisation are called ‘intrapreneurs’. Intrapreneurs are known for having certain traits, including leadership, adaptability and intelligence. The broader staff need to be empowered to suggest and champion new ideas.
With curious leaders, intrapreneurs and empowered staff, a culture of innovation develops within an organisation. That culture creates an appetite for exploring innovative ideas, so that the allocation of time and resources naturally comes to be viewed less as a costly imposition and more as a worthwhile investment.
When should we innovate?
Innovation requires an investment of time to allow staff to seek out trends, attend webinars and conferences, make connections, build networks and share learnings. Google, for example, has proven very successfully that you can systematise innovation. Resources are always at a premium at non-profits, but you need to have a baseline of resources available to staff to make innovation possible.
Unleashing Innovation in Non-Profits [Tech Impact May 2021]