6 Approaches to Innovation for Nonprofit Boards

The Bridgespan Group, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation,  completed an exciting research study. The results identified “six elements common to nonprofits with a high capacity to innovate” *Following are some suggestions on how to implement these elements.

  1.  Catalytic Leadership that empowers staff to solve problems that matter. This involves the board leading with committed and generative leadership. **  Board members must be ready to ask tough questions. They must require management to respond to the classic question, “Who would miss the nonprofit if it were to disappear?” Board members should be able to suggest new ideas drawn from business and the public sector that can be adapted, assessed, and tested by management and staff
  2. A curious culture, where staff looks beyond their day-to-day obligation, questions assumptions, and constructively challenge each other’s thinking as well as the status quo. This, in my view, is difficult to achieve, but boards should attempt to take every advantage to develop it. Boards that question the status quo are hard to find in all fields. They should, at the least, involve the staff in strategic planning efforts and pay close attention to its development. Staffs then are in an excellent position to challenge the status quo. One staff person in a human services agency, for example, challenged the status quo by observing the nonprofit did not have a “safety net” mission, but in reality, had a “sustainability” mission. The agency was not only helping clients on a day-to-day basis but also was trying to assist them to achieve sustainable lifestyles.
  3. Diverse teams with different backgrounds, experiences, attitudes, and capabilities—the feed-stock for growing an organization’s capacity to generate breakthrough ideas.

As the Bridgespan Group has noted, it is necessary to have board members, “who are diverse across their dimensions: demographics, cognitive and intellectual abilities and styles with professional skills and experiences. In my opinion, nonprofits have been successful in recruiting board members in all of these categories except two—cognitive and intellectual abilities. I have encountered nonprofit boards without a single director with strategic planning or visionary abilities. Board members’ full-time occupations often do not require them to have these abilities. As a result, strategic planning was just a SWAT (strengths, weaknesses, and threats) review without any real analytical depth. To rectify the situation, nonprofits need to add these abilities to their recruitment grids. Unfortunately, this makes the recruiting effort more difficult since the abilities don’t appear on many resumes. Candidates must be assessed through an in-depth interview process.

  1. Porous boundaries widen the scope for innovations, by allowing fresh ideas to peculate up from staff at any level—as well as constituents and other outside voices—and seep through silos.

Because many nonprofits have small travel budgets, they may operate in “bubbles, ” consisting of themselves and similar neighboring organizations.

In addition, they can acculturate board members to the “bubble” traditions and environments.   For example, they may ask a new board member, with strong financial abilities to help the CFO with accounting issues, instead of asking her/h to develop a strategic financial plan for the organization. Perhaps as national webinars become more available to nonprofit managements and their staffs, these information flows will help to change the innovation roadblocks. Then they can, “generate new ideas systematically, test ideas using articulated criteria, metrics methodologies and prioritize and scale the highest potential ideas.”

  1. Idea Pathways that provide structure and processes for identifying, testing, and transforming promising concepts into needle-moving solutions. For example, the process of Lean Management can allow the testing of new ideas quickly. Instead of waiting for a new strategic plan to establish a pathway for something new, a nonprofit can test it with a series of small-scale efforts to determine its viability. The idea can be dropped if positive results are not developed after a couple of tests.   If after successive tests with viable information results, the idea can be moved quickly to an implementation stage when the nonprofit has the necessary resources.
  2. The ready resources—funding, time, training, and tools—vital to supporting innovation work. To fully take advantage of most of these six innovation guidelines, fundraising is critical. But each board and staff cannot do it alone. It must be a partnership between the board members and the CEO that recognizes fundraising for innovation is a necessary part of the nonprofit’s resourcing efforts.




Dr. Eugene Fram
Dr. Eugene Fram
Eugene H. Fram, Ed.D., is an expert in nonprofit governance, a business consultant and an award-winning emeritus professor of the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). He is also the author of six books and more than 125 published articles and has been widely quoted by national media on topics ranging from business to high-performance nonprofits. His blog platforms on nonprofit governance have in excess of 3500 followers. He is a past recipient of RIT's highest award for outstanding teaching and one of a very select group awarded the Presidential Medallion, given to those making exceptionally significant contributions to the university. In 2012, a former student anonymously contributed $3 million to endow an RIT Chair in Critical Thinking in his name, an honor Dr. Fram describes as "a professor's dream come true!" Over his distinguished career, he has served on 12 nonprofit boards overseeing diverse community, national and professional organizations, and also has served on five for-profit boards. His particular passion is helping nonprofit boards perform at high levels as more is expected of these boards today than most people realize. He is the author of Going For Impact – The Nonprofit Director's Essential Guidebook: What to Know, Do and Not Do, and POLICY vs. PAPER CLIPS - How Using the Corporate Model Makes a Nonprofit Board More Efficient & Effective.

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