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If You Say You’re Innovative, You’re Probably Not

May 03, 2012

(Derrick Feldmann is the CEO of Achieve, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm that works with nonprofits. A version of this post originally appeared on the Achieve blog, and it is reprinted here with permission.)

InnovationsOne of the best parts of my job, beyond working with some great clients, is traveling to speak about the latest trends in fundraising and millennial engagement. After most presentations, individuals will come up to personally ask for advice. I love this one-on-one time with folks willing to wait in line just to get one burning question answered.

Many of these conversations start with an all too familiar opening: "My organization is innovative because..." Usually, the individual will go on to describe why the services offered by his or her organization are unique and unlike other nonprofits'. Indeed, this claim of innovation is becoming more and more common. Unfortunately, while some nonprofits truly do have unique program models and service delivery approaches, most do not.

For example, I just did a quick online search and found three nonprofits with the following statements on their Web sites:

"We are an innovative organization pairing youth with adult mentors throughout the city."

"We are an innovative organization designed to help people achieve self-sufficiency."

"We are an innovative nonprofit working in an economically disadvantaged community to help people come together to solve social problems."

Alas, the more I explored each organization's site, the more I found there that wasn't unique or different. So maybe it's time we had a discussion about what truly makes an organization innovative.

When I look at innovative nonprofits, several traits come to mind:

They find creative solutions. Innovative nonprofits are driven by leaders willing to take risks and be at the forefront of new ideas and change in their communities. Innovation doesn't mean you create a process and come back to it five years later to see how things went. Truly innovative nonprofits constantly evaluate their processes and work to make their service delivery better every single day. They are never satisfied with the answer "it is what it is."

They are not afraid to fail. Innovative nonprofits are not afraid to test new concepts -- or to see them fail. They approach research and development in the spirit of discovery and are willing to push the envelope in the interest of improvement. Truly innovative fundraisers say, "We will test text-to-give platforms and learn from our mistakes and successes." They never say, "I wish we would've..."

They know when to pivot. Innovative nonprofits don't wait till next month's board meeting to address a project or program that has gone off the rails. Instead, they pivot when change is necessary and are not afraid to make a move in order to achieve a desired result. Innovative nonprofits understand how fluid the current environment is and know that today's complex problems demand maximum efficiency and effectiveness from every organization and sector. They never say, "We need to hold that idea till next month."

At the end of the day, innovation is more about people letting their networks know about an innovative organization they've discovered, rather than about an organization endlessly promoting itself as innovative. If your nonprofit is truly innovative, it doesn't need to tell the world. Its actions speak for themselves, and we'll know it's innovative because we haven't seen anything else like it.

For more on the DNA of innovation, check out this Fast Company article.

What do you think? Is innovation something you "walk" instead of "talk"? Or, in an ever-more crowded media environment, is it better -- indeed, essential -- to tout your organization's innovativeness at every opportunity. Use the comments section below to share your thoughts...

-- Derrick Feldmann

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