4 reasons non-profits don’t innovate well — but should

“How can we get better at innovation?”

It’s probably the most important question your ministry could ever answer.

Why? Because if you don’t innovate, your organization will experience stagnation and — eventually — death.

Stagnation brings both fear and pain, the two things that seem to paralyze us most. We don’t innovate when we fear and feel pain. But not innovating just causes more stagnation, which leads to more fear and pain.

It’s a vicious, self-destructive cycle. And it’s exactly why half of all development directors will leave their jobs within two years. What a sad statistic, confirmed in a national study of challenges facing non-profit fundraising, aptly titled, “Under Developed.”

So, why don’t most non-profits innovate well?

Here are 4 reasons I regularly see when I visit with mid-level and senior leaders at a wide variety of Christian non-profit organizations.

1. “We don’t need to innovate.”

Non-profits often don’t recognize the benefits of innovation because they’re so occupied with meeting current needs. But, as research demonstrates, the fastest-growing non-profits today receive half their annual revenue from strategies, methods and programs they developed in the last five years.

These organizations, some of them decades old, are consistently improving their programs, finding new revenue sources to fund their ministries and reaping the benefits of an ongoing stream of new ideas.

Many of the leaders I meet don’t recognize how innovation can drive revenue. They see things more from the expense side of the equation, rather than the revenue side.

But that kind of thinking is deadly. That’s why I want to encourage you to take a very honest look at your organizational culture. Are you embracing an environment of ongoing, organizational-wide innovation? If not, what steps can you take right now to start moving in that direction?

2. “We don’t have the resources.”

Many non-profits are solely focused on maximizing the money going to their immediate mission. That leaves little left for innovation, research and testing. I understand that budgets are tight at many ministries. But is the lack of resources genuine, or is it merely perceived?

Ask yourself: “Where can we find the money we need to invest in the future? Are there other funds, even reserve funds, that can be tapped? Is there an opportunity-oriented donor who might be interested in helping?”

Are you looking in every corner…collaborating with leaders ministry-wide…starting small when you can’t go big…taking “baby steps,” as I like to say — easing into the new and unfamiliar?

Your future depends on it.

3. “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

Of course, I don’t know a non-profit leader who’d admit to this kind of limited outlook. But at many non-profits I visit, there’s simply no vision for investing in something new — no urgency to uncover new, high-impact ministry programs, new fundraising offers or new donor engagement strategies that will boost long-term value and reverse declining retention.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. I can think of one organization we work with that is very eager to innovate. That desire seems built into their DNA. No wonder they recently finished their best fundraising year ever. In this increasingly challenging fundraising environment, that’s really an achievement.

They live by this philosophy: The Kingdom deserves all the creativity we can muster…the best Gospel literature has yet to be produced…and the best methods of outreach have yet to be developed.

Would you believe that, at this organization, we’ve been trying to beat an existing direct mail acquisition control for more than 10 years?! That means two things: First, our control kit is amazing. And, second, we’re not going to give up until we beat it. We’ll continue to innovate on offer, package format, creative and list strategy until we succeed.

Does your organization have that kind of focus and commitment? If not, what can you do now to change course?

4. “Our leadership doesn’t support new thinking.” 

Christians start ministries because they want to help people, advance the Gospel, strengthen believers’ faith — not because they want to run a non-profit. That means, sadly, many non-profits are not very well managed.

But let me ask: As a development professional, are you doing all you can to encourage innovation, testing and learning at your organization — even if it’s just in your area?

Have you taken time to respectfully explain to the senior leadership at your organization why innovation is the lifeblood of any non-profit?

Have you gathered together your colleagues to brainstorm new ideas and strategies that will move your organization forward? If you have, congratulations! If not, why not take the lead and set up a series of meetings where you and your teammates talk seriously about new marketing and ministry program opportunities?

Look for my upcoming follow-up blog

I hate articles that only paint a picture of what’s wrong and don’t offer constructive solutions. So look for a follow-up blog with a number of ideas to help you spark innovation and change in your organization!