Nonprofit organizations are being relied on to solve increasingly complex social problems, while at the same time maximizing their limited resources. As anyone in our sector knows, this is a tall order. To remain sustainable and thrive in changing times, nonprofits can benefit immensely by embracing creativity and innovation.

We need to bring imagination back into our daily work. We need to be inventors focusing on the art of the possible. We need to be curious and let the sense of wonder draw us through any doubts or supposed impossibilities. 

Fortunately, innovation is not foreign to nonprofits—many of our organizations were founded by entrepreneurs with fresh approaches to addressing critical social needs. At the same time, relatively few associate our sector with boldness and risk taking. This is no accident; numerous forces work against a desire to embrace untested ideas. These include:

  • Risk-averse funders, who prefer investing in “evidence-based” programs that deliver clear, measurable outcomes as quickly as possible
  • Bureaucratic work cultures that squash new ideas with “that’s not how it’s done here”
  • Insufficient time or psychological space for creativity among nonprofit employees who do not want to jeopardize the mission with an off track experiment
  • Fear of failure among staff members—many of whom have succeeded by managing the status quo fulfilling obligations 

Despite these obstacles, what’s clear is that the “same old” way of doing business is not going to solve the climate crisis, end racism, or deliver justice with the speed and urgency that our world demands. Nor is it likely to retain your brightest, most entrepreneurial staff members.

Create an enabling environment for creativity to flourish

When pressed, nearly all nonprofit leaders agree that creativity and innovation are valuable organizational assets. At least in theory. Yet if words alone were sufficient to fuel transformational change, nearly all workplaces would overflow with fresh, silo-busting ideas. 

The reality, of course, is quite different. One significant challenge is that sustained creativity requires supportive organizational cultures (pdf). This typically means an intentional commitment from senior leadership—one that’s backed up by policies, structures, and practices that reward creativity and innovation by those who would otherwise fear being called out for pushing against established norms.

Leaders in a position to influence organizational culture create momentum for such change by getting specific about the creativity they’re looking for—what, where, when, and from whom. Counter to all the business rhetoric on the value of “disruption”, creativity can come through iterative improvements. 

You may be especially interested in unlocking new thinking around one particularly thorny (and seemingly intractable) problem that your nonprofit faces. In this case, consider identifying a diverse, cross-disciplinary team of leaders across the organization, and giving them a clear mandate, with ample time, resources, and space for collaboration. As much as possible, you’ll want to free this group from your organization’s usual rules and norms to create an open space for fresh approaches and thinking to emerge as part of their work priorities–not an added layer on top of an already heavy load. 

Leaders who value innovation can take many other steps to create conditions for creativity to flourish. A few particularly helpful places to start:

  • Refute the notion that creativity is only for “creative types.” You don’t have to be a designer or technologist to identify ideas that save time and money, or that serve your key stakeholders in fresh ways. Consider the recently hired assistant who has great ideas for completely overhauling intern training. Or the finance person who suggests a field visit to a partner organization’s office to learn from their best practices.
  • Unlock resources for innovation. For years, Google encouraged employees to spend 20% of their time on projects with no immediate benefit to the company. It’s unlikely your nonprofit has the same resources to follow suit. Still, for creativity to truly take root, employees do need time on the job to identify, discuss and vet ideas. Your job is to create it for them—for example, by carving out regular time in team meetings, and by scheduling special events specifically devoted to brainstorming and discussing ideas..
  • Adapt your leadership style to support and champion creativity. Many leaders also feel pressure to always have the right answer. In contrast, a culture of innovation is all about humility—democratizing ideas, empowering and listening to staff, giving credit where it’s due, and modeling openness to change that comes from unexpected places. Try starting your next meeting with ”I don’t know the answer to this problem”, and observe how your team reacts!
  • Explicitly reduce fear of failure. As a leader, you need to give psychological safety to colleagues sticking their necks out to propose something fresh and untested. Importantly, you need to make sure that all the people in the meeting feel free to express their ideas openly–regardless of “rank”. While not all ideas are practical or have ready applications we need to cultivate the cultures that open the process and thinking to all of our staff–not just the senior staff. 

Infusing your work with more resourcefulness and imagination

It helps to start small: What’s one thing that you can do in the next week to switch things up, and make space for more ideas—either at work or in your personal life? How can you break out of your normal professional routine and encourage yourself to see things differently? Can you ask your team members for new ideas this week on how to rethink a product, process, or standard deliverable. And, will you give yourself permission to commit to following through on at least one new suggestion this month and see what happens?