Do Nonprofits Need to Think Outside the Box?

05/22/2014 06:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Do nonprofits need to think outside the box? Is there even a box anymore? Through my own experience, the answer to both of these questions is yes.


Nonprofits are prone to innovation stagnation, especially as they become accustomed to a particular way of doing things. This slowing of the nonprofit "gears" encompasses both how organizations are managed as well as how they are responding to particular social problems.

As a development professional, I can attest to the fact that many nonprofits are fundraising for and communicating their mission in much the same way they were decades ago even as funding partners are transitioning from the traditional approaches of grantmaking to a model that embraces social investment. In order for nonprofits to standout among their peer organizations, so as to capture the attention of social investors (e.g. foundations, venture philanthropists, etc.), they will need to change how they fundraise and communicate their impact. This shift will require that nonprofits begin to present their programs and services in a way that potential investors are able to understand not only the immediate impact of their investment, but also the potential returns in the future. In much the same way that for-profit companies issue dividends, nonprofits will have to ascertain a similar way of helping a social investor realize the return of his/her commitment to the organization. Of course, this return will still be altruistic in nature, but should instill a sense of satisfaction and realized impact.

Changing how an agency speaks about its programs is only a small aspect of actually breaking out of the box. For real change to occur, top management has to change how they think about the organization's work and impact. They'll have to realize that merely accepting what has been done as all that is possible may limit the agency's ability to grow and/or ensure sustainability. To this end, organizations need to evaluate themselves on an ongoing basis, so as to identify opportunities for innovation with regards to programming and administration. Management and program staff need to work together to identify gaps, additional needs, and problems that may be ripe for new approaches to achieving their mission or for the development of innovative solutions to newly identified needs. These new programs and initiatives will only thrive if the vision of management is matched by the support of an organization's board.

Whether a board warmly embraces or tacitly approves organizational innovation will either make or break such efforts. Board members need to come together and realize that supporting and/or championing innovation within an agency they serve is critical not only to the agency's success, but also their fiduciary duty to the nonprofit. By fostering innovation and helping the management team and staff they lead to think outside the box, board members are ensuring that the nonprofits they serve are constantly thinking about how and why they deliver the programs and services they do.

Encouraging nonprofits to "think outside the box" is really just another way of saying that they need to have the courage to innovate and think differently about the work they do; however, as outlined above, this willingness to "shake things up" requires buy-in from a number of actors throughout an organization. If an agency fails to coordinate change and innovation among management, program staff, their development and communications teams, and their board, they'll likely experience difficulty in realizing the change they sought to accomplish. At times, breaking out of the box requires that each of us be willing to shatter our own "boxes" before being able to contribute in a meaningful way to helping the agencies we serve discover and unlock their own potential. When we challenge our own thinking about how things have been done and work with others to develop new solutions or approaches to how our organizations operate, we're helping to ensure that the gears of the nonprofit sector keep churning in a way that constantly fosters innovation and impact.