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Innovation is tricky, especially for nonprofits. Fail to evolve and you might fall behind but deviate too far from proven best practices and you could potentially alienate funders while steering your organization on a dysfunctional path.

A recent Atlantic article highlighted a successful example of innovation within the nonprofit sector. The piece titled “Is Ending Segregation the Key to Ending Poverty?” recalls the successful initiative led by the Chicago Housing Authority to relocate low-income African-American residents to economically-secure suburbs in the 1970’s. The article acknowledges that while the program showed significant results, only a few similar efforts exist today.

The Baltimore Mobility Program, which has given more than 2,500 vouchers for families to relocate since 2003, happens to be one of those few. And their success reflects a truism about innovation – innovation is not the holy grail.

So what should nonprofits seeking to be more innovative consider?

  1. Don’t innovate just for its own sake. Look to genuinely determine where innovation can help add more value. Innovation that exists to validate an organization as “smart and cutting-edge” doesn’t further the mission.
  2. Look to the past for clues. Innovation isn’t just about creating something new. It’s also about taking ideas, behaviors, and materials that exist and using them in new combinations and purposes. Like the Baltimore Mobility Program, consider how you can tailor proven examples of success for your unique situation and service population.
  3. Cultivate a culture that supports innovation. Taking a page from technology companies known for innovation such as Apple Inc. and Google, create an atmosphere where innovation is expected and encouraged. Often many nonprofit employees, particularly in non decision-making roles, have unique insights into opportunities for the organization to succeed. But their viewpoint isn’t always encouraged at the table where decisions are made. Creating a culture of innovation means expressing a call for ways to think differently and then publicly rewarding those who follow the call.

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