Innovation and Change in the Non-Profit Sector

I recently came across a great post on the Idealist Blog: “3 Tips for making the most of failure.” In the post, Christine Prefontaine offers her insights into how innovators in the non-profit sector can learn from failure.

The non-profit sector is always pushed to try new strategies to create change, since taking risks is necessary to bring about innovations on large social issues. Here, I think about agencies like the IMPACT Program at Northwestern University that seeks to discover new and creative ways to prevent and end the spread of HIV, such as their uniquely youth-friendly education campaigns.

Prefontaine points out in her blog post that in the course of innovation, mistakes can happen! Projects won’t work, new strategies may not pay off, but a good organization can learn from its mistakes to gain deeper insight into how they make an impact. Prefontaine raises some great points about how we can reflect and talk about failure; she says that organizations need“make it okay to talk about failing” so that they can be open about learning from it. Failure offers a chance to learn, grow, change, and rethink how we reach our organizational goals.

After reading this blog post, immediately my mind went to the spectacular TED Talk from Dan Pallotta: “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong.”

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This talk is something I think everyone associated with the nonprofit sector needs to watch. Pallotta’s claim is that non-profits can’t make a real impact on social issues unless the non-profit sector scales to a size large enough to genuinely effect change in society. He unpacks this idea by comparing a bake sale to a large scale fundraiser. Though the bake sale might be efficient, its scale is miniscule to that of the large scale fundraising enterprise. The investment in change-making can really only occur through large-scale processes. For Pallota, scaling social innovation is the pathway to effecting change in society.

Pallotta goes on to question whether the sector will be able to innovate enough, because non-profit organizations are not allowed to fail. “When you prohibit failure, you kill innovation,” are his exact words. If the funders of non-profits don’t accept mistakes, the non-profit sector cannot innovate and seek out new ways to create change.

Nonprofits should to be empowered to create innovative cultures where they can use their monetary, social, and creative capital to find new paths to fulfilling their missions. This would empower them to challenge themselves and seek out new opportunities to create change. And if they should happen to mess up once in awhile–they can learn from it.

The quest to find real, innovative solutions to social issues can only advance if non-profits have their own safety net–which is the learning and growth that comes from failure. And this can lead to the social change that we are working toward; it is through innovation that non-profits can dream of ending hunger, ending poverty, ending disease, and creating change.

And for some final inspiration, just remember the timeless words of everyone’s favorite teacher–Ms. Frizzle: “take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”