During challenging times, nonprofit organizations that innovate have a greater chance of success. It’s easy to assume that an organization is or isn’t innovative but what we’ve found is there are different types of innovation and in many nonprofit organizations there are certain areas that are more innovative than others. Often innovation happens due to necessity – we have only so many resources and when there isn’t something available, someone creatively finds a solution. Many of these creative solutions end up becoming a standard part of the work as they are proven to be better than alternatives. This sort of ad hoc innovation works but doesn’t provide constant innovation. Constant innovation is what separates innovative organizations from ones who are less prone to innovate.

Becoming an innovative organization has many benefits. The organization is nimbler when presented with crises, it develops solutions that attract attention and funding, and it encourages freedom for employees to try new things. When employees feel this kind of freedom, they are more likely to stay with the nonprofit.

A framework we’ve found useful to examine your fundamental assumptions about your work contains these four questions:

  1. What are you doing?
  2. How are you doing it?
  3. Where are you working?
  4. Why are you doing it this way?

We all have fundamental assumptions about our work processes. Some come from experience, others from assuming that someone before us has developed this finely tuned process. When you actually start questioning processes, programs, and services, you may find that there is opportunity for improvement. Be prepared to write down the answers to these questions. When you are forced to write down the answers, you’ll identify opportunities for improvement. Let’s explore each question.

What Are You Doing?

The first step in this framework is to describe what you are doing. Write down a description of the program, process, service, or product. Writing down what you are doing will help frame what changes could be possible and define the purpose.

The JED Foundation promotes mental health and works to prevent suicide among teens and young adults. During the COVID crisis, JED brought together students, parents, mental health experts, and teachers to identify how the COVID crisis is affecting youth. The JED Foundation desired to identify gaps in their programmatic offerings and make sure they were adequately addressing the mental fallout from the current crisis. They found several gaps, one of them helping the Asian-American youth population. They identified that many of these young adults were facing bullying. The organization expanded its programs to help Asian-American youth experiencing xenophobia. The JED Foundation experience shows that by questioning what they were doing they identified gaps in the communities they could serve.

How Are You Doing It?

Next, write down the steps you’re following to perform the process. When you start writing down a process, you might immediately discover tweaks to improve your process. You will also identify key spots to move beyond incremental improvement and innovate your work.

Here’s a crucial tip: don’t look at the manual for the process, instead, observe how it happens in practice. You may find that a process has evolved from the written steps over time.

At one organization I worked for, we had a staff member retire after many decades in the organization. As we documented the processes she followed, we found several spots for improvement. For example, in one step, she had 27 copies of what we were producing created and stored. When we asked, “why 27?” she explained that it’s what she’s always done. We had storage closets full of boxes of these materials that we rarely reviewed. We consulted with our legal team and found we only needed to retain a single copy so we kept a few in storage and disposed of the rest. As we reviewed how we were doing things, we found many opportunities for process improvement that the new staff member that took her role saved several hours each week.

Where Are You Working?

The geographic or physical location you’re working in matters to your program or process. For example, if you’re creating a community savings group program in certain parts of the world, you might incorporate cell phones into the process while in other parts of the world pen and paper are the only options. The physical location where you’re delivering a service also matters. Developing an after-school reading program that meets in a school vs a library vs the local YMCA all have different logistical challenges to must address.

For example, World Concern helps serve evangelists in South Sudan. Many of these evangelists want to increase their reach but there are many communities not accessible by roads. World Concern offered an innovative solution: provide bicycles for evangelists to travel to out of the way communities. If the evangelist is traveling by SUV, he can bring musical equipment, Bibles, and more. If he’s traveling by bike, it limits what he can bring with him.

Why Are You Doing It This Way?

This may be the most difficult question for you to answer. You may have to dig into some history to understand why a process is designed the way it is. You might find that no one knows why something is done the way it is. When you start digging into the “why” for each step in a process, you might find great opportunities to improve your process or innovate to something new.

Several years ago, I worked for a nonprofit and the IT development team decided we were a specific type of web development shop based on the longest serving employee and the technology he used. We began an improvement process and challenged the assumption that we are tied to a specific technology because of this single staff member. It wasn’t an easy discussion and took several months to resolve. In the end, we made a shift in technology and created several cutting-edge robust web solutions on a different platform. We were willing to address why we were doing something a specific way and changing resulted in significant improvements in our digital platforms.

Innovation can be learned. Asking these four questions can help you identify programs, processes, services, and products that could result in innovative ideas for your work.