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6 Ways Nonprofits Can Drive Innovation for the Future

Woman presenting to a group of colleagues sitting at a table

Recently, I was honored to be a guest on the We Are For Good podcast, where nonprofit leaders, advocates, and philanthropists share their innovative ideas and lessons learned. I had a fantastic conversation with hosts Jonathan McCoy and Becky Endicott about driving innovation in the nonprofit sector and what’s next for capital campaigns and major gifts.

I wanted to share some highlights from that conversation, which may be helpful for nonprofits as they reflect on the pandemic and look ahead to continued economic uncertainty. Here are six key takeaways for organizations looking to drive innovation in the nonprofit sector:

1. Be courageous and curious about innovation

The pandemic forced the nonprofit sector to think more seriously about automation because we were physically separated. Consequently, many organizations have gotten curious about technology and are courageously embracing change. We now have no choice but to innovate.

Data is king: We have to know what our data is telling us so we can make decisions about how to allocate resources internally, measure our impact, and tell the stories that need to be told, on the right channel, at the right time, to the right people. The only way to do that now is to have the courage to do more digitally.

Technology doesn’t raise more money; technology enables nonprofit organizations to be more nimble and offer better, more actionable insights to connect people to missions and moments that matter!

In my experience, the biggest barrier to digital transformation in the nonprofit sector is, actually, fear. Nonprofits don’t have a lot of room for failure. Digital transformation requires both the courage and curiosity to find out how you can use technology to inform and reimagine our business.

You don’t have to buy everything at once and change your whole organization. That IS scary! Instead, make incremental changes and measure the impacts of innovation. Well-managed change also helps bring your entire team along on your innovation journey.

2. Make your campaigns relevant to donors

Nonprofits focused on issues that are hyper relevant right now will have an easier time campaigning. For example, organizations working on refugee resettlement, food insecurity, or healthcare access can easily make their case with donors for more resources, while organizations whose causes are not particularly urgent, like museums or arts organizations, may have more trouble fundraising in this moment as donors make tough decisions about where to put their limited charitable dollars.

That’s why it’s important for organizations to understand who their supporters are, prioritize the mission-centric work they are doing, tell their stories in meaningful ways, and support them with a focused campaign.

Let’s take the example of an arts organization: Is there a gap they can fill that drives support? Maybe a local school district cut its arts programs due to a lack of funding. They could execute a small campaign to support that school district by offering arts education opportunities. It’s specific, it’s local, and people can see the impact immediately.

3. Always be telling your story — and always be listening

Organizations need to understand how their story is resonating at scale, particularly on social media. Those insights let you make informed decisions about your case for support and deploy your fundraisers strategically, so they are talking to the right people at the right time.

Nonprofits can also take advantage of opportunities more quickly using digital media: The moment an adverse event happens, you can tell that story immediately, make it relevant to your mission, and show people how they can have an impact.

4. Show major donors the impact of their support

To be truly compelling to major donors in challenging financial times, nonprofits must offer a clear and vivid understanding of where their dollars are going, the impact they are having, and time to value: What will the $10 million they give you do in 90 days, 6 months, 12 months, 24 months, and how is it a jumping-off point to something sustainable?

Technology has made this so much easier. Tools like virtual reality and video offer donors a front-row seat to the work being done in a faraway community without ever having to leave their house. You can give them intimate access to your mission and show them what’s happening right from their dining room table. They need the immediacy of the visual so they can feel connected to the work. Marry that with data insights and impact reporting and you are sure to give your donors a very real sense of the importance of their support!

5. Embrace partners

A lot of community action and place-based philanthropy happened during the pandemic and has been very effective. For example, I sit on the board of a mental health support organization in my town, and my kids and I worked at a food drive that they held every Friday during COVID in collaboration with our local food bank.

Both organizations raised more money during the pandemic because they worked together and, most importantly, they talked about their collaboration and how it increased their impact. Donors loved it! Nonprofits need to be creative and reach out to each other to say “what if we did this together?” People give more when they see collaboration in action.

6. Have an abundance mindset

Many in the nonprofit sector have a scarcity mindset, but we should believe there is enough in the world for everyone (abundance) and the job of a fundraiser is to move those resources to the people who need it most. The very definition of philanthropy is people helping people. As long as there are people on the planet, we’re going to keep helping each other. There will always be a nonprofit sector.

The generosity of others is what perpetuates and propagates the future. If someone is making a gift, it’s not about what they are going to get out of it today, it’s about the future—so we need to show donors how every gift helps make the future a better one. And the tools we have at our disposal today to demonstrate that impact are better than ever! Be Curious! Be Courageous!

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