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leaders in nonprofits

A Theory for Breaking Through Nonprofit Sector Constraints

It seems that, without even knowing it, we’re all working together to limit nonprofit innovation.

In the nonprofit sector, risk (an important element in innovation) is stifled due to nonprofits’ need for multiple stakeholder acceptance in order to survive. This makes large-scale change difficult, if not impossible, and the only way that we will solve this is if we put our minds together to think about it.

Let’s take the hot topic of increasing salaries for nonprofit leaders (though we could pick any topic that challenges perceived sector constraints). A nonprofit might seriously consider higher salaries in order to attract high-quality leaders, establish itself professionally, or ensure that competition for the position allows the organization to choose– or continue to motivate– the best candidate for the job.  This could be a great idea. It could work wonders. But questioning sector constraints at all is often much like trying to give a big hug to a hand grenade. Here’s why:

  1. The board and staff will need to approve this risk. In the case of increasing employee salaries, they will consider that every extra dollar given to a staff member is a dollar that could be spent on programming. These immediate stakeholders must believe in the potential of the idea.
  2. Then the nonprofit will have to face the multiple foundations that may no longer award the nonprofit otherwise-much-deserved grants because their administrative costs exceed (or come close to) a percentage set by the foundation in advance.
  3. You have to face the people who don’t understand why you made this change (regardless of its nobility), and the media may tear you apart. Even worse, other nonprofit leaders at The Chronicle of Philanthropy may even give you bad press for trying to take a risk to aid in sector evolution.
  4. Your amount of in-kind donations over the year may suffer because of the bad press– which defeats your whole attempt at innovation because you can no longer afford to pay a higher-than-before salary to your employees… so you are back where you started– but with fewer funds, a lot of bad press, alienated foundation connections, and unhappy employees.

In the private sector, innovation breeds new business practices and monetary success. The system is quite simple: a firm must gather capital to take a risk, take that risk, and if the company makes a profit, they are onto something. Other companies catch onto the company’s new tactic and next thing we know, every company has to be doing that innovative thing in order to continue to stay in the game. The same is true for nonprofit organizations except, in the nonprofit sector, raising capital may mean raising social capital.

 

Please click on the image to enlarge

So what can be done to alter sector constraints in order to allow nonprofit professionals to be innovative in organizational management?

First, double loop learning must take place. Double loop learning occurs when leaders question their own basic assumptions about the world. Single loop learning, by comparison, is the tried-and-tested routine that we fall into when we do everyday things like write grants and conduct meetings– but we also use single loop learning when we devise wages (continuing with the case of nonprofit salaries as our example). We have an idea of what works and we stick to it. Double loop learning, on the other hand, makes us ask ourselves, “Why do we do X? Maybe I should be doing Y.” When we ask this question, possibilities are born.

Second, the nonprofit must be transparent about their new idea and share it among networks. The nonprofit could ask for input via social media networks, get dialogues going with staff members; make everyone (stakeholders especially) aware of the possible benefit of taking this risk. This includes spreading word about the importance of innovation among stakeholders, the public, and other nonprofit groups. Technology is a great mechanism for information-share, and getting brain juices flowing. Who knows? A few other nonprofits may consider the idea and try it out alongside you.

Through this, social capital is created. Spreading the message creates connections. Asking people for their input (even if it’s negative) creates connections. Connections build social capital. Social capital increases overall support of the new practice because friends and community partners can share your idea with their own networks, and become part of idea formation and collaboration.

Then intellectual capital is built as stakeholders become educated on the issue. The more people hear about the issue, the more educated they will become on the need for innovation, or rather, the more accepting they will be when you actually follow through in challenging sector constraints. Lets go back to the example of a nonprofit taking on higher administration costs to motivate employees. If we learn that there’s a nonprofit leadership deficit on the way, then we may be more likely to outwardly encourage and support (or at least understand) nonprofits that are raising employee salaries.

And finally, the innovation is accepted. This does not mean that people will agree with your new (hopefully) innovative practice– but, because of your transparency, they will fully understand why you have challenged sector constraints, and also that you have the best interests of the community you serve at heart. And whether they agree with the idea or not, folks may be more inclined to respect the idea. Foundations may still award grants to the organization, and donors may stick around for at least another year. Who knows? Maybe your active desire to contribute to the sector and your fresh views of management will earn you a few more donors.

This theory is just that: a theory. I do not know how to encourage nonprofits to take responsible risks and challenge constraints that hold them back in serving their mission. I do know that, if the sector means to evolve, nonprofit leaders must begin to think about blazing new trails— and we should think about ways to allow them to do so.

Posted on by colleendilen in Leadership, Management, Nonprofits, Public Management, Public Service Motivation, Social Change, The Future 6 Comments