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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

How nonprofits can foster a culture of innovation

By embracing strategic change, you’re building innovation into the fabric of your organization’s culture.

How nonprofits can foster a culture of innovation
[Source photo: Gorodenkoff/Adobe Stock]

I first joined The Trevor Project as a volunteer crisis counselor in 2011, spending hours every month speaking with LGBTQ young people struggling with rejection, navigating their identities, and seeking support. By the time I became the organization’s CEO in 2017, the organization was nearly 20 years old. It had done so much to save the lives of LGBTQ youth for two decades, but it was clear there was so much more the organization needed to do to achieve its mission.

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The main challenge that we were grappling with is one that so many nonprofits face: how to dramatically scale up programming. For us, the solution was adopting a culture of innovation. There are many definitions of innovation, but I wanted to share three key aspects of our transformation: investing in technology, creating strategic partnerships, and embracing change.

INVEST IN TECHNOLOGY

This might seem obvious, but many nonprofits never invest in hiring dedicated talent to support technology efforts, either because they can’t afford to or because they don’t see the potential. That’s a missed opportunity. You can task a technology expert with creating a strategy for getting the entire organization up to speed with the latest systems and software that you use on a daily basis. Over time, you can grow the department to include product development, AI and machine learning, engineering, UX, technology operations — whatever suits your organization’s specific needs.

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Skilled technologists can orchestrate a comprehensive evaluation of your services and platforms, offering strategic guidance on where to invest and what to overhaul. Our tech team has enabled us to pursue multiple areas for innovation, including building AI-powered training tools and solutions to scale remote workforce operations in a pandemic, revamping our volunteer management system, and more. By bringing technology experts on board, you’ll equip your organization with the know-how needed to make these kinds of assessments and changes.

EXPLORE STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS

Many large companies have social impact arms that provide funding, resources, fellows, and accelerator programs to mission-based nonprofits. From Google, Twilio, and PwC to LinkedIn and Salesforce, there are countless programs that can support your nonprofit with the resources you need to innovate and grow.

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Think big and task someone on your team with researching these opportunities and staying on top of submissions. Have them meet with your programmatic staff to ask about their challenges and needs. Working together, they can identify opportunities that make your programs shine even brighter with even more strategic investment and private sector expertise. Preparing this work before speaking to companies and foundations can help them see the value in investing in your organization’s mission and make it easier for them to draw a direct line to the impact their donations can have.

EMBRACE CHANGE

Change is hard. Many organizations are hard-wired to embrace the status quo, so it requires deliberate work to build a culture that embraces change and flexibility. As mission-driven nonprofits, we often set high goals for impact, but we will never achieve those goals if we just implement the same strategies and tactics over and over again.

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It’s critical to carve out space and time for employees to be creative, ask questions, and brainstorm ideas in service of systematic and sustainable innovation.

When new ideas come to the surface, be willing to embrace change and take risks to do things differently. By embracing strategic change, you’re building innovation into the fabric of your organization’s culture. That’s the only way to push past what might have previously seemed impossible and create impact for the communities that are counting on us.


Amit Paley is CEO and executive director of The Trevor Project

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