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Jump-Starting Your Nonprofit's Innovation Engine

Every spring semester at the Institute for Nonprofit Organizations at the University of Georgia, I teach a class called “Innovations in Nonprofit Organizations.” After years of experimentation, I’ve developed the ideal assignments for students who want to learn about creating an innovation-friendly work environment: “innovation challenges.”

While these challenges put into practice everything we read about and discuss in the classroom, their most important function is forcing students through the innovation process: pushing them to come up with new, creative solutions for uncommon but conceptually relevant problems.

While the challenges themselves vary from year to year, the reaction I get from the students never changes: for the first three or four weeks, they hate me. But once they let go of the idea that there is only one correct answer, they start having fun exploring the possibilities and testing the boundaries. Not long after that, they produce—often with great enthusiasm—a solution that directly benefits local nonprofits.

Must innovative thinking be forced upon us? Why can’t anyone issue an innovation challenge?

This past semester, students received a tub of Play-Doh and a charge: using the material provided, make as much money as possible for the organization of your choice. One team raised $1,180 by partnering with a well-known local artist, who used the Play-Doh in a painting. The team sold raffle tickets for the painting at a local event, resulting not just in a nice check for the beneficiary organization, but increased awareness of that organization.

All five teams, in fact, surpassed their fundraising expectations, but the lessons they learned—that innovation is uncomfortable, intimidating, unpredictable, and difficult to manage—were even more valuable. By forcing them through the sticky process of creative problem-solving, these students get to understand exactly why so few of us voluntarily step out of our comfort zones, but also why it makes such a powerful impact when we do.

The question is: must innovative thinking be forced upon us? And if so, who is responsible for the forcing: an executive director, a program director, a supervisor, a funder? Or must innovation come from the top down? Why can’t anyone issue an innovation challenge—to their employees, their board, or themselves?

Accept this task, if you will: take an object close at hand, and ask your employees, your kids, your colleagues—or anyone else you think might benefit from an exercise in creative thinking—to come up with a money-making scheme using that object. You may not be their favorite person for a few weeks, but it probably won’t be long they’re clamoring to show off their great new idea. And don’t neglect to take the challenge yourself—it’s a simple way to re-engage with your mission and your creative skills.

Kristina Jaskyte is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Work and the Institute for Nonprofit Organizations at the University of Georgia in Athens. Her work focuses on innovation in nonprofit and government organizations, and her current research centers on the role of the board of directors in facilitating innovation.

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