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  • Dr. Ken Thiessen

Innovation and Nonprofits


I suspect most people would not naturally associate innovation with the world of nonprofit organizations. At least not established nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations don’t tend to be on the leading edge of the innovation curve when it comes to new models of program or service delivery, organizational design and function, marketing, or fundraising. Usually birthed out of the vision of a passionate person who identified an unmet community need there is an element of innovation in the early stages of the organization’s existence but a status quo pattern quickly emerges and becomes a restrictive noose around the organization’s neck limiting its effectiveness and impact. My experience working with nonprofits indicates this is the norm rather than the exception. So why is that?

Status Quo is Predictable

There is something profoundly comfortable about the status quo. Even if the status quo isn’t ideal, and even if it’s sometimes really messy and dysfunctional, it’s at least predictable. It’s a known quantity. You know what to expect. Most of us love predictability and stability. We don’t like it when the organizational equilibrium is destabilized and systems have an inherent determinism to maintain status quo. Nonprofits seem more prone to that. Behaviour patterns and norms quickly get set in stone and the organization works to attract people who fit with the status quo and can help maintain it. Innovative thinkers are subtly marginalized.

Status Quo is Dangerous

As much as status quo is predictable, it’s also profoundly dangerous. Status quo has a powerful way of stifling creativity and reflective, evaluative thought. Status quo has an ability to squelch the honest questions that might lead to deeper reflection and heaven forbid, change! What makes status quo so dangerous is that almost everything outside the safety and predictability of status quo is changing! To remain rigid in the face of a maelstrom of change is to rapidly embark down the road whose destination is obsolescence and irrelevance. The destination is almost always a point of no return and the beginning of the end if not THE end of the organization. Atrophy and death may come slowly, but they are inevitable.

Strategic Thinking Spurs Innovation

What all nonprofits need desperately, but most ignore, refute, or reject out of hand, is a disciplined strategic thinking process facilitated by someone external to the organization. External to the organization because they bring a different perspective, they see things through a different set of lenses. Disciplined because reflective and evaluative thinking that is driven by a clear sense of long term direction, core values, core purpose, strategic priorities challenges the status quo is key to innovation. This kind of a process invites questions like, “Why?” and “Why not?” It has the potential to stimulate incredible creativity and passion as the executive leadership team evaluates what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, wrestles with how the world around them is changing, plots out the best course of action to realize the long term vision of the organization. It also provides an opportunity to ask questions like, What should we keep doing? What should we stop doing? What should we start doing? An honest wrestling with those questions are sure to disrupt the status quo.

Innovate or Die

If your organization is more than 5 years old and you have not had at least one strategic thinking session in the last 5 years, and engaged in corresponding execution planning where you lay out the specific actions you’re going to engage in as an organization to help you avoid the status quo trap, you’re on the dangerous path to obsolescence. Innovation is no longer an option. Like the rest of society, you either innovate or you die. The business world is rife with examples of companies who didn’t innovate and nothing more than a memory. The world of nonprofits is no different. Your nonprofit is no different. To find out the degree to which your team is aligned around innovation, visit www.powerofoneconsulting.ca and sign up for our FREE Team Alignment assessment. It will begin to help you identify where your organization is at in terms of innovation.


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