Nonprofit Innovation Awards celebrate innovation (and failure) in Calgary

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At the second annual Calgary Nonprofit Innovation Awards on September 13, Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO) Vice President of Programs and Operations Michael Grogan admitted that innovation is “the most overused word in the organizational lexicon these days.” According to Grogan, the problem with the word innovation is that it’s easy to romanticize or to call something innovative once it’s already been successful.

“Innovation might be a process” and “glorious failure” is just as valuable as success; “Innovation and change don’t just happen. Slow progress is still progress. It’s not glamorous or sexy, but it is more powerful.”

At this year’s ceremony, the following organizations were recognized as recipients of CCVO Innovation Awards:

Each received an award and a $2,500 cash prize. CharityVillage spoke with representatives from each organization to learn more about their innovations and what they’ve learned.

Step back and find a better way

The Association for the Rehabilitation of the Brain Injured (ARBI) was stretched to capacity, a situation that will be familiar to many nonprofit organizations. Demand was greater than ability to provide service. Patients languished on waiting lists, losing critical time for recovery in the three to six month window following traumatic brain injury, and rehabilitation therapists were not able to keep up with the workload. Families were becoming desperate.

Rather than seeking more money to throw at the problem, ARBI challenged itself to change. ARBI brought in outside experts to audit its operations and recommend key changes in the way programs were delivered, and decreased its waitlist by over 90%.

“It’s about seeing opportunity,” said Program Director Mary Anne Ostapovitch. “It’s important to keep passionate, and to remember that you’re doing [the work] for the clientele.”

ARBI started with a small pilot project. It offered group rehabilitation sessions for stroke victims on the waiting list for individual therapy and used the sessions as an opportunity to screen for individuals who would benefit from more intensive rehabilitation.

What does failure look like?

“Failure would be if we didn’t even try.”

Executive Director Judy Stawnychko pointed out that employees are sometimes afraid to try new things. By tying-in patient rehabilitation to activities they already love — swimming, golf, fixing motorcycles — ARBI has increased patient motivation and joy, which further motivates staff to keep on with the program.

ARBI’s keys to innovation:

  • Remain determined in the face of obstacles.
  • Learn to see problems and challenges as opportunities to improve client service.
  • Don’t be afraid to bring in outsiders to examine your situation, they can see your situation with a fresh eye.
  • Engage your staff every step of the way as they see things that leaders miss.
  • Don’t get discouraged if the changes you implement don’t lead to the outcomes you expect.

Engaging employees to bring fresh ideas to life

How do you foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship? By giving staff permission, encouragement, and exercises that are both challenging and fun.

The Calgary Public Library (CPL) marked its centennial year in 2012. The library created its own version of “Dragon’s Den” following a “light bulb idea” from interim CEO Ellen Humphreys. It put out a call for “big ideas” proposals to all library employees. Nine pitches were chosen for presentation to members of CPL’s senior leadership group who acted as “Dragons.” Staff watched lunchtime pitch sessions live or through a live-streaming internal channel. Administration Support Librarian Julia Brewster organized the events and chose an audience response system to gauge staff favourites.

Wanting to engage Calgary’s diverse diasporas, winner Umashanie Reddy, manager of diversity services, conceived of a welcome video available in the Calgary immigrant communities’ 10 most common languages; Citizenship and Immigration Canada committed to funding eight additional languages. CPL earmarked $10,000 for the winning proposal, which partially paid for production and translation costs.

Manager of Volunteer Resources Azmin Poonja recruited volunteer narrators and translators. This Welcome to the Library video is used during CPL’s English as a Second Language tours and sent to immigrant service agencies.

CPL’s keys to innovation:

  • Don’t expect to be popular or loved.
  • Innovation takes people out of their comfort zone - early adopters will jump on board, but others may be resistant.
  • Innovation is not the purview of senior managers. Everyone at every level can be creative.
  • Recognize and reward those who do things differently and better.
  • Embed innovation in a structure of innovation.

Collaborating towards a greater good

A century ago, churches would automatically be at the forefront of a community’s response to disaster. Marg Pollon, founder of Bridges of Love Ministry Society, has established a model using churches to bring humanity back into Calgary’s emergency response systems.

A chance phone call from a doctor led Pollon to create pandemic emergency preparedness initiatives, followed by broader emergency preparedness initiatives. She was further inspired to help mobilize people for emergency preparedness after her husband contracted H1N1 and nearly died.

Through a service agreement with the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, Pollon has built the Faith Emergency Preparedness Initiative (FEPI), a project to connect and coordinate churches with the communities they serve. She wants to create a coordinated approach to community care so that “When we arrive at the scene, we’ll all know what to do.”

FEPI structures a complicated set of logistics for every possible emergency. Pollon wants churches to share and use resources and skill sets that are already in place. She’s begun the process of identifying which churches have resources such as doctors or nurses in their congregations, commercial kitchens, and defibrillators. She’s created a fridge magnet that lists civic emergency numbers and FEPI’s contact information.

Pollon has coordinated secular and religious service organizations so that there is a shared understanding of procedure and proper certification. Admitting that initiating collaboration between different service groups is “not for wusses,” Pollon seeks to find the human being behind her partner organizations and agencies.

How does she do this?

“Make apple pies. It breaks down barriers. It’s amazing how you build relationships over a meal.”

Bridges of Love Ministry’s keys to innovation:

  • Do a test exercise of your plan.
  • Relationships take a long time to foster - plan to be in it for the long haul.
  • A soft touch may be required to smooth the way for collaboration - if you can’t bake apple pies, you can still share a meal together.
  • Have persistence and passion.
  • Be prepared.
  • Realize that others won’t be as interested in your ideas as you are.

Constantly evolving collaboration

How can distinct agencies collaborate holistically to assist vulnerable children and youth? The key is for collaborating partners to hold each other accountable to a high standard of service, and accept that collaboration will require continuous communication.

The High Fidelity Wraparound Collaborative began six years ago with a tendered contract from Calgary and Area Child and Family Services. The collaborative consists of Enviros Wilderness School Association, Hull Services, and McMan Youth, Family and Community Services Association. They believe that they have helped hundreds of families involved with Child and Family Services (CFS).

High Fidelity Wraparound is both a process and a model. It creates an integrated “system of care” for families and children with complex needs. All of the agencies work with CFS under a unique agreement to work together as one body. According to Joan McHugh of Hull Services, High Fidelity is a “true partnership where we hold each other accountable and give each other feedback and praise [to] reinforce what we’re doing.” Each agency has a facilitator who does the groundwork. Evaluator Darcie Gage oversees the structure.

High Fidelity Wraparound gives families the opportunity to identify their own priority of needs, rather than allowing the public system to dictate what will happen.

In the beginning, McHugh said, the challenges of implementing this collaboration were huge. “[We had] different philosophies, and different interpretations of the same word. We all had to strive to come together not just to use the same language, but [in] how we interpreted the language.”

The individuals involved in the collaboration believe they’ve taken only the first initial steps but they are gratified to know that interest from other cities and provincial bodies means that this system change has the potential to help hundreds more families.

What does failure look like?

High Fidelity Wraparound requires its participants to be “really uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.” The agencies involved must commit to constant evolution. If the plan doesn’t work, they change the plan.

High Fidelity Wraparound Collaborative’s keys to innovation:

  • Belief in your organization’s mandate.
  • Openness to learning and feedback.
  • Use practical models that are consistent and structured.
  • Commit 100% to the philosophy.
  • Constant communication.

Nikki Reimer is a Calgary-based freelance writer, editor and creative writer. She is passionate about the health of cities.

Photos (from top) via High Fidelity Wraparound Collaborative. All photos used with permission.

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