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Innovation: Why It Should Top Your Priority List

It's a buzzword among thought leaders across the sector and the business world, yet it has proven tough to energize organizations to innovate, according to Kristina Jaskyte at UGA's School of Social Work and Institute for Nonprofit Organizations. “Why is it that progress in the nonprofit field toward becoming a sector known for its innovativeness so hard to see?” she asks, noting that meaningful innovation may be radical or incremental, and implemented across my facets of an organization. How might innovation transform your nonprofit?

I’ve been interested in the topic of innovation and individual creativity for over fifteen years. I’ve been studying it, practicing it, researching it, teaching about it, talking about it, trying to inspire people—my students, my family, my friends, my nonprofit clients, and nonprofit leaders—to become innovative. I have to admit—these are not easy tasks. Doing research on innovation in nonprofit organizations has become increasingly difficult due to a very low response rate that, based on some respondents’ comments, I attribute to the topic itself. Finding organizations that would consider implementing transformative interventions designed to improve organization’s innovativeness has also proven to be nearly impossible (I have one success story that I will write about in the upcoming entries). The one area that gives me hope is a growing number of students who are interested in innovation, and who are preparing for careers in nonprofit sector.

For a new idea, process, product, or procedure to be considered innovative, it does not have to be new to the entire universe.

There is a perplexing reality wherein innovation is quite obviously important to the business and government sectors—innovation has become an increasingly popular topic, especially among politicians and businessmen—but not readily seen as important to or prevalent in the nonprofit sector. A growing number of books on innovation and creativity (mostly geared toward the business audience) speak to the importance of the topic. Some of the most prominent innovation scholars in nonprofit field (Paul Light was a keynote speaker at last year’s GCN conference) try to energize organizations and encourage them to seek innovation. Why is it, then, that the progress in the nonprofit field to becoming a sector known for its innovativeness seems so minimal?

I know it is easier said than done—it always is. I know that innovation is not a number one priority on most organizations’ lists. Maybe the starting point, then, is to try to understand why it is so hard to get people in the nonprofit community excited about innovation. Or perhaps, instead, it would be helpful to first take one step back—to think about the word itself and what it means to people. We hear this term every day—not once, not twice, but multiple times. “Innovation” is used casually, without explaining what its actual meaning. Maybe once we clarify what innovation is, we will realize that we are in fact innovating without knowing it. 

There are at least 23 definitions of innovation in management literature. The question is: which definition fits nonprofit context the best? I favor the following definition: “Innovation is the intentional introduction and application within a role, group or organization of ideas, processes, products or procedures, new to the relevant unit of adoption, designed to significantly benefit the individual, the group, organization, or wider society” (West & Farr, 1990). This particular definition encompasses four key components.

Innovation should be intentional—not accidental and not a one-time event.

First, innovation should be intentional, not accidental and not a one-time event, which implies that an organization has to have a built in capacity to innovate. Another key point is that while organizational level innovation is the most talked about, it is important to recognize that innovation can occur at multiple levels—individual, group, and organizational. Individual employees can innovate in their work roles; groups can be innovative in how they reach their tasks; and innovation can occur in multiple aspects of organizational functioning. Yet another key point is that for a new idea, process, product, or procedure to be considered innovative, it does not have to be new to the entire universe, but rather to the prevailing organizational practice. What that means is that as long as what you are doing is new to you as an individual, organization, or group, it is considered innovation. The last important component of this definition is that innovation has to be meaningful.

While innovation is most commonly associated with introduction of a new program or service, it is important to note that innovations can occur in multiple areas. Innovations implemented in the administrative area are called administrative innovations and encompass changes in organizational administrative processes and organizational structure. Administrative innovations involve procedures, rules, roles, and structures that are related to communication and exchanges among employees and are more directly related to organizational management, as distinguished from work activities. Service innovation involves an introduction of new types of services or goods. It can be radical (a wholly new service or good), product differentiated (the existing service or good changed into something recognizably different), and market differentiated (an existing service or good extended to new groups of clients). Marketing innovation encompasses new ways of communicating with constituents and new ways of promoting the organizations’ services. Yet another area for creative ideas is ways in which nonprofit organizations raise money. These types of innovations, naturally, are called fundraising innovations. Innovations can be radical or incremental and can involve imitation, pure transfer, innovative transfer, significant modification, or invention of an idea, service, process, procedure, structure, system, or product; and occur across multiple levels and multiple functional areas.

I hope that some of you who are reading this will think—yes, we are in fact innovating—maybe not in a big, radical way, but a small, incremental way. My hope is that my entries will help individuals working for nonprofit or government organizations think about innovation as a possibility for their organizations—and not as a luxury.

Kristina Jaskyte is an associate professor at the School of Social Work and Institute for Nonprofit Organizations at UGA. Jaskyte’s publications on innovation and creativity appeared in Nonprofit Management and Leadership, Public Administration Review, and Administration in Social Work journals, as well as in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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