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Non-profit innovation: Taking risks and embracing failure

How can the non-profit sector strive to embrace innovation, failure and risks with pragmatism?

women working in non-profit sector

In the corporate world, failure, risk-taking and continuous improvement are often baked in the organizational culture. Importantly, non-profit organizations are not commercial businesses – nor should they be. The sector is understandably risk averse, and the cost of innovating can be high when resources are limited and demands ever-increasing.

With this in mind, we set out to determine how non-profits are faring in the culture of innovation. After all, innovation can have a significant positive impact on your performance. Yet, being creative and coming up with innovative ideas is one thing – acting upon them is another entirely.

Blackbaud’s recent eBook, Nonprofit Insights: Culture of Innovation, shares essays from leading industry experts across the global non-profit industry. Based on their experiences and top tips, we could identify how organizations can create a culture that harnesses innovation.

Embracing failure and taking risks helps innovation thrive

“Fundraisers might find themselves trapped in a cycle where change is difficult ‘because that’s not the way we do it here’,” described one of the experts, Chris Paver, co-founder of Dataro. As such, organizations looking to launch an agile innovation culture must change their mindset.

Most innovation projects fail, because even the best ideas on paper might not translate into actionable insights. But it’s essential to understand that failure, and subsequent risk, is a part of your innovation journey, as experienced by Alex Campomanes, executive director, advancement services, donor relations at University of Manitoba: “It wasn’t about encouraging recklessness, but about fostering an understanding that innovation often requires stepping out of comfort zones.”

Creating a failure-friendly culture – one that leaves room for trial and error – is essential for sustained growth. Mistakes should be seen as steppingstones, not deterrents, and the impact of failure can be tempered with appropriate regard for risk. “Organizations can think about their approach to innovation from a portfolio perspective and create a profile for their risk tolerance that feels comfortable and appropriate,” wrote Dr. Adrian Sargeant, co-director of Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy.

Working in the non-profit sector

Modern technology is there to support

The fundraising landscape is constantly changing, impacting both stakeholder and donor expectations. Social impact organizations need to prioritize finding new ways to attract passionate and committed donors and create more efficient processes. “Fundraisers have never had so many tools to enable them to reach and nurture relationships with donors,” said Charlotte Sherman, growing giving policy and partnership manager at Chartered Institute of Fundraising.

Today’s modern social impact technology now enables non-profits to unleash more impressive results than ever before. As explored by Adrian Sellaro and Julia Villiotis, directors of Visualise Fundraising, the path to innovation can be greatly improved through strategic use of data and robust reporting. 

The relationship between innovation and data is two-fold: modern technology gives you better data and this better data, in turn, can elevate your decision-making and foster ground-breaking innovations. You can identify performance trends, potential challenges, emerging opportunities, and donor behaviour, which can guide your long-term strategies and decision-making.

If you’d like to take a deep dive into innovation in the non-profit sector, check out Blackbaud’s Nonprofit Insights: Culture of Innovation eBook.