Overcoming the Obstacles to Innovation

Technology can trigger conflicting emotions. On one hand, most of us enjoy “shiny objects” in our regular lives: phones, flat screen TVs, smart thermostats, sound systems. Maybe you have one of those devices that you can tell to order more laundry soap, or ask about the agricultural products of Zimbabwe. On the other hand, very few of us know how they work or how to fix them. If something breaks,
it can be expensive and frustrating to get it running again. And then there’s the malaise that often comes when you’re so constantly connected to your devices. A lot of people eventually ask themselves, Do I really need this? Is it making my life better?

At your nonprofit, you’re right to be skeptical about technology. Shiny object syndrome can be an expensive distraction. Before investing in a new device, software, or service, it’s important to identify a clear mission or operations need.

However, if that skepticism becomes fear, then you can have trouble seeing opportunities, even when the benefits are overwhelmingly clear. In our 2012 report, Unleashing Innovation: Using Everyday Technology to Improve Nonprofit Services, developed in collaboration with MAP for Nonprofits, we found that nonprofits good at identifying their needs, keeping up with new technological developments, and creating time and space for innovation were more likely to be successful.

Let’s take a closer look at the three most common concerns nonprofit leaders raise when considering new technology and why these challenges are not as big as they seem.

1. “We Don’t Have Enough Time.”

Every nonprofit feels this way, and in one sense it’s true.
If you had more people and more time, you could do incredible work. This is actually why innovation is so important. Your big idea might free up hundreds of staff or volunteer hours that can be applied to more critical issues. For example, a domestic abuse organization created a new report in an existing system to provide information to external probation officers. Those officers had been reaching out to staff members one at a time whenever they needed information. Now they get the information more quickly, saving both sides a lot of time.

It’s easy to get caught in the daily hustle of getting work done, but sometimes just investing an hour or two to step back and think about a challenge can help you find ways to address that challenge and free up a lot of valuable time.

2. “We Don’t Have Enough Money.”

Psychologists have recently identified an interesting phenomenon called the “scarcity mindset.” Essentially, it’s a kind of tunnel vision that emerges when you’re so focused on something you lack that you overlook what you do have and neglect other important responsibilities.

Nonprofit budgets are usually razor thin, but we think you can’t afford to overlook innovation. We’ve observed that innovative organizations are more likely to discover new and better ways of achieving their missions and to get the funding they need to do that work.

Consider the assets your nonprofit has beyond money. Do you have talented, committed people? Do you have enthusiasm behind your mission? Do you have tools that can be used in new ways?

Innovation doesn’t necessarily require a lot of money, so don’t count yourself out before considering what’s possible.

3. “We Don’t Have the Expertise.”

Do you need to be an expert to be an innovator? Not necessarily. Sometimes the best ideas come from people who aren’t experts because they’re not so quick to think about the limitations of an idea. General knowledge and a sense of curiosity are incredibly useful for innovation. Then, once you have an idea, talk to experts. Learn about the challenges and brainstorm with them ways to overcome those challenges. And if you’re building or creating something that’s complex and requires expert help, trust their expertise and work with them to realize your vision.

Also, don’t overlook how many innovations can be implemented without expertise. For example, you might be able to repurpose an existing mobile app for your own use. Many consumer-facing technologies are built to be easy and intuitive. Your innovation might only require the ability to use a phone.

Like any new endeavor, technology implementation can be risky. But if you consider the risks up front and the potential benefits, you’ll often find that the risk is more than worth it.

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Break through the obstacles and develop exciting new ideas with Innovating Program Delivery: A Nonprofit Workbook. This resource will help you discover the potential of your team, your programs, and your technology. Download it now.


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