Unleashing innovation in your non-profit doesn’t have to mean releasing the Kraken!

“Release the Kraken” generally means unleashing a massive and fearsome beast, wreaking chaos and destruction on anything in its path.

onedoesnotsimplyreleasethekrakenImplementing technology in your organization has probably felt like that. That’s why finding Unleashing Innovation: Using Everyday Technology to Improve Nonprofit Services (PDF) is so exciting.

Most information about technology use for nonprofits and charities focuses on marketing, online donations, and awareness or action campaigns. It’s hard to find the same level of useful and credible information about using technology/social media for community/social service organizations.

There is much out there about how businesses or even sectors like libraries can provide service online. But, the community/social service sector culture is unique enough that it’s important to find resources that come from or target it.

If implementing technology has felt like releasing the Kraken in your org, take heart. This report is full of practical insight, advice and useful case studies. Any community/social service organization can benefit from it. You’ll find messages similar to what you’ll find about any technology implementation process – be strategic, understand your audience/clients, understand that implementing technology in your organization is challenging. Lots of good stuff you already know you need to do offline.

They had me with their opening paragraph:

“People often think of innovation as futuristic, cutting-edge technology, but our research found that it doesn’t have to be—in fact, many Minnesota nonprofits successfully use existing technology to innovate in more subtle ways, imple­menting solutions that are often both low-cost and effective. We found a number of different examples of organizations using straightforward, inexpensive technology to provide higher quality services and create opportunities to do more with less.

But can other organizations replicate their results?”

Yes, you can replicate their results. And you can do it while taming the fearsome beast of technology. In fact, the authors took the methodology they proposed in 2012 and implemented it in 2013 with 11 organizations. Their follow up report, Unleashing Innovation: Lessons and Stories from a Pilot Program (PDF) describes how it went (spoiler: it went well).

Who is this report for?

This report will be useful for anyone working in a community/social service organization whose thinking about or implementing technology in service delivery. If you’re front line or middle management, it’s a great “evidence based” report to provide to your upper management.

Upper management looking to implement? There’s a road map for you here.

Strategy, strategy, strategy. Have I mentioned strategy?

When I talk with colleagues and clients about online services, I use the words strategy and strategic a lot. When it comes to technology, we just want to do, implement. We’re all supposed to just get this stuff, amiright? We’re supposed to be on Facebook and Twitter. We’re supposed to be using social media. So, we dive in.

I have nothing against experimenting. To a certain degree, you have to with social media. But, you generally don’t have the time and resources if you’re in a busy organization serving clients. When it comes to client service, you need to be deliberate, and know why you’re crafting a program or solution or technology. It’s about serving your clients. Every moment you spend that might take away from client service needs to be justified as ultimately benefiting your clients.

That means strategy is essential. It’s also the most difficult hump for people to get over when they want to dive into technology. Yes, it takes time to craft a strategic approach. But, it’s time well spent.

Don’t believe ME. Read the report and learn from your peers.

4-common-elements-of-successful-innovationMAP for Nonprofits and Idealware provide a “framework for innovation” that is built on a strategic approach. Very simply, they tell us, you need to:

  1. Identify needs
  2. Understand technology
  3. Connect needs and technology
  4. Realize that you’re embarking on some organizational change

The authors spend time reviewing each of these elements of their framework. Each element is grounded and explained by case studies from front-line service organizations like yours. The eight case studies alone are worth reading this report. The authors provide additional analysis from their survey of 180 human service nonprofits to support. They expand on an organization’s learning experience in a case study to show what other orgs they surveyed are doing and what you can learn from them.

They also outline the importance of tracking data and measuring results (you know, client/service outcomes) with technology. Most of the case organizations they highlight are mainly doing this anecdotally, but are still able to describe benefits with their technology implementation. They recommend that any organization track, measure and evaluate more actively, like you would with any program.

What you need to know to replicate

Report findings and recommendations are simple, intuitive, actionable. Do you see something you recognize below? You should. No matter what type of new program, project or initiative you seek to implement, online or off, how you approach it is has common elements:

  • Start with your needs (offline: needs assessment)
  • Identify existing technologies (offline: are there existing service approaches/models you can borrow/learn from?)
  • Familiarize yourself with available technologies (offline: don’t reinvent the wheel here, build on things that are already working or are well established or used heavily/relied on by your clients)
  • Pull in outside ideas (offline: you may bring in a consultant or new staff who have experience where you don’t. Outside ideas also come from clients)
    Consider starting small (offline: pilot project)
  • Get buy-in from staff and board (offline: the same!)
  • Budget for both cost and staff time (offline: the same, recognizing that costs are not just hard, technology costs, but, oh so importantly, staff time and resources)
  • Measure and build on success (offline: the same!)

What’s equally useful are the recommendations for funders. Funders don’t always understand technology use in a service context, or why they should be paying you to use free online tools, such as social media. For along time, technology has been baked into administrative, instead of program costs. Most of you scramble to pull admin money from different projects, funders and budget lines just to keep your hardware systems up to date. That has to change. Some funders get that, some Executive Directors get that, but not all do.

That’s still the case, four years after this report was published.

When it comes to innovation, you need the resources not only to implement, but to plan, build capacity, and access external expertise. If you’re embarking on something new to your organization, which requires new expertise you don’t have in-house, funders need to support developing that capacity. A lot of these recommendations for funders resonate today. Similar recommendations can be found in a recent exploration and evaluation of social finance models for the Settlement Sector.

Review the report’s recommendations for funders. Make them your own and use them to position any technology ask you make of a funder:

  • Encourage organizations to consider their needs as much as technologies
  • Help organizations understand existing technologies
  • Support consulting structures to help organizations innovate
  • Provide cross-pollination opportunities
  • Encourage innovative uses of existing technology

You don’t have to be first, but you do have to act

Some of you might feel a bit behind the innovation curve. It’s OK to not be first or be an early adopter of the latest technology craze (I’m sure we’ll soon see articles and webinars about how nonprofits can harness the current Pokemon Go craze… UPDATE: here it is). But, you can learn from those who have gone before you.

Their innovation is ready for your replication.

What the authors of this report wrote in 2012 is still completely accurate today:

“We strongly believe that service innovation through technology is within the reach of any nonprofit. The case studies in this report demonstrate that this type of innovation is not only possible, but often cost-effective. However, there’s an enormous, untapped opportunity for nonprofits, support organizations and funders to do more to enable such innovation. By acting on the recommendations in this report, the nonprofit sector as a whole has the opportunity to harness the power of innovation to improve the quality of service delivery everywhere.”

Improve the quality of service delivery everywhere.

That’s a goal for you, isn’t it? Improving the quality of your services?

Take the time to read this report. There’s much here to absorb, learn from and replicate.

I’d love to hear what you think.

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