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Addressing societal challenges through innovation

We’re facing many challenges these days in Sonoma Valley. These challenges are making the work of our local nonprofits more difficult than ever because people turn to  them for help in the face of hardship. Lack of affordable housing, issues related to homelessness, food insecurity, immigration barriers, lack of access to affordable healthcare, spiraling cost of living for those on a fixed income, children who aren’t ready for kindergarten, and students experiencing trauma are just a few of the societal problems that our nonprofits are trying to tackle. The best way for Sonoma Valley community-based organizations to be successful in helping to solve these problems is to find new ways to be innovative and creative in how they approach their work. The Bridgespan Group, a well-regarded global nonprofit consulting firm that focuses on improving quality of life by helping social impact organizations thrive, surveyed 145 nonprofit leaders on their capacity to innovate. The research indicated that while over 80 percent of the nonprofit leaders recognized that it’s imperative to innovate to survive, only 40 percent reported that their organizations were set up to be innovative. The researchers reported, “Most nonprofits know that delivering the same services in the same manner is insufficient. But unfortunately, most also struggle to anticipate emerging opportunities for distinctive offerings or approaches that might extend their reach or magnify their impact.” So, what can nonprofit leaders do to increase their ability to innovate? Based on their research, The Bridgespan Group made some observations about key elements they found that were common to organizations with a high capacity to innovate. Here are those findings, all of which are relevant for Sonoma Valley’s nonprofits. The research found that for a nonprofit organization to be innovative, it’s important for its leaders to empower staff so that they have the authority and motivation to solve problems. That means creating a culture in which all staff members feel responsible for solving problems in whatever role they serve in the organization. People who are closest to the organization’s clients generally have the greatest understanding of how to address those clients’ challenges and should be encouraged to do so. Organizations having what The Bridgespan Group calls “a curious culture” were also found to be poised for innovation. In organizations with a curious culture, staff question assumptions, challenge the status quo, and challenge each other. People working in a curious culture are always thinking of better ways to serve their clients, as opposed to continuing to provide the same services in the same ways, just because that’s how they’ve always done it. One finding that’s no surprise is that organizations with diverse teams – —people from a variety of backgrounds, with different experiences, attitudes, and capabilities – —provide the fuel for organizations to develop creative solutions to complex issues. The research also noted that organizations with what they called “porous boundaries” had a great likelihood of being innovative. Having porous boundaries means that the organization is set up to allow information and new ideas to flow into the organization from the outside. That information could come from sources including issue-specific thought leaders, clients, community members, and new research on best practices. Innovative organizations were found to have organized structures and processes “for identifying, testing, and transforming promising concepts into needle-moving solutions.” So, instead of viewing innovation as something that only happens occasionally, innovative organizations create a culture in which finding ways to be innovative is embedded in the organization’s standard operating procedures.   Finally, to make innovation happen, resources must be readily available to be deployed to the solution, as needed. Resources could include staff time to work on the issue, training for staff so they know how to implement the proposed solution, technology to be able to track outcomes, and adequate funding to successfully implement the solution that’s developed. The more that Sonoma Valley’s nonprofits are ready to innovate, the better they will be able to help our community overcome the challenges we’re facing.   B.J. Bischoff is the owner of Bischoff Performance Improvement Consulting, a Sonoma firm specializing in building the capacity of nonprofit organizations and public sector agencies. She assists her clients with strategic planning, board and staff training, fund development, grant writing, and community relations.  She is Past President of Impact100 Sonoma and serves as a Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ appointee to the Sonoma County Portfolio of Model Upstream Programs Review Committee. Contact her at [email protected]  
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