Non-Profit Leadership: How to Inspire Innovation

There have been multiple issues facing non-profits in the past several years. The devastating pandemic has had significant impact that has left both clients and staff struggling. Historically many non-profits have struggled with limited funding, resources and staff to achieve their mission. The Great Resignation has also reached into our non-profit world recently and many organizations are having a difficult time finding staff. All that plus the tremendous stress of working with trauma-impacted clients forces non-profit programs to double-down and have to do with just the essentials to survive.

Yet we are in a technologically sophisticated world that requires new ideas, innovation and new approaches to our work with those we serve. Being trauma-informed with new interventions requires more training, new strategies, and a great deal of innovation. With such a need to think “out of the box” with limited resources it can be a significant challenge for leaders to create the innovation required to grow and develop.

One reality of creativity is that it cannot be forced, mandated or controlled. It is something that occurs in the cognitive part of the brain which is the place of calm. The environment must be conducive to safe, calm and low threat surroundings. Mandating innovation is contradictory to its very essence.

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Inspiring innovation means that the environment must be safe, highly motivational, and very brain regulating. This is typically very different from most work environments. Therefore, if we strive to create constructive and innovative think tanks, we need a designated space where there is low stress and distinct separation from the daily routines.

Another issue to inspire creativity is to find what energizes the key players individually. Usually, most individuals who know their strengths and wish to exercise them are the most creative. It is both logical and intuitive that people who are living in their strengths will be more innovative and productive.

So, if we minimize the stress in the environment and unleash our staff by utilizing their strengths, that is a great beginning. However, we are more likely to be innovative when we have a collective set of ideas. Innovation is conducive when we form groups of colleagues who can feed each other ideas, ask penetrating questions, problem-solve and be in a group dynamic where input is welcomed and there is a great deal of openness to new concepts and perspectives, thus yielding innovation.

Inspiring innovation is an indefinite concept but needs to be very intentional on the part of any leader. If we intend to break out of our antiquated habits and shift to improve our practices and programs, we should consider changing our normal work environments into a place that is safe, non-judgmental, affirming and one that fosters creativity, and is synergistic in using different opinions and options.  It’s important to create these environments so that we can find new ways to innovate, grow and be creative with our future growth steps. This is not a concept that is taught in management school, but it can be measured by its success and the motivation of the people participating.

Gerry Vassar


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