Innovation, creativity, Darren Dahl and the brilliance of the not-for-profit sector

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Many not-for-profit leaders find the concept of ‘innovation’ a challenging one – something funders expect to see in funding proposals despite the long-term nature of the work these leaders and their organizations are trying to address. But the concept of innovation outside of the funder/not-for-profit context isn’t a negative one. Let’s invest in new and interesting approaches, say many funders, to the world’s problems. It is the counter to the old saying: doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.

The concept of innovation flowed into the not-for-profit sector from the business community as a refreshing answer to the statement: ‘we keep funding these organizations, but the problems persist.’ It seemed like a brilliant focus – ‘let’s invest in innovative new ideas instead of these age-old programs’.

The challenges in approaching the not-for-profit sector this way is:

  • innovation in the business world is much more complex than that thinking suggests,
  • the sector already has a remarkable capacity for creativity that is challenging to communicate effectively to funders and donors in the current not-for-profit ecosystem,
  • solving society’s complex challenges can’t rest in the hands of small organizations alone (food banks aren’t designed to end poverty, for example), and
  • only core and capacity investment will actually result in innovation in the world of social service, the arts and other not-for-profit subsectors because that is what provides the necessary foundation for creativity.

Professor Darren Dahl is the keynote speaker for Vantage Point’s upcoming BOSS: Building Organizational & Sector Sustainability conference this September. Darren’s talk (which rumour has it will be an entertaining one!) will tackle the first point, supporting us to identify and build on creativity in our daily work. As the Associate Dean of the Sauder School of Business and the BC Innovation Council Professor, Prof. Dahl is a leading expert on the topic of what he describes as ‘small ‘I’ innovation rather than capital ‘I’ innovation’.

"Capital I innovation is that big new idea and what many people think of when they are talking about it, but little ‘i' innovation is the one that is more important. It’s about daily creativity, observation and experimentation,” Prof. Dahl explains.

The not-for-profit sector is designed around the pursuit of a mission rather than a transactional exchange of money for product. Succeeding in our sector means being creative in solving problems all the time; the ‘product’ is rarely funded by the person or people who directly benefit from the activity and therefore we must find creative ways to encourage community support of someone else. Only in member-based not-for-profits do the dollars come from the direct beneficiary. A grantor may want to see the next big idea, but the youth and seniors the program is designed for, for example, may simply want that great after school or long-standing lunch program.

Prof. Dahl understands this. Creativity and innovation (big or little) require some stability as well as room to flourish. Creativity comes from stepping back and looking for patterns and the pressing demands of the social, environmental, economic, and artistic work of our sector can make that feel very challenging. But it not only can be done, we are all doing it. Prof. Dahl will share his insights from his deep dive into this topic and offer up tools and structure to feed what we do best – experiment, explore, and solve the world’s complicated questions.

I hope you will join Vantage Point and Professor Dahl at the BOSS conference on September 28th.

Alison Brewin is the Executive Director of Vantage Point, a not-for-profit that delivers foundational, advanced, and custom learning opportunities on governance, leadership, planning, and human resources for new and seasoned not-for-profit leaders, board members, and executive directors.

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