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NEWS > Charity Sector News > Nonprofit innovation - shouldn't this be easier?

Nonprofit innovation - shouldn't this be easier?

And how can we make human-centered approaches thrive?

Earlier this summer, I wrote about my wish for the sector: a foundation of trust that allows nonprofit innovation to flourish, ultimately driving our resilience and a virtuous circle of positive impact.  Assuming we have the trust piece nailed (no problem), how can leaders then turn attention to encouraging innovation within teams and across the organisation?

This is exactly the question put to our expert panel in the next of Cii’s series of Positive Impact Panels.  Innovation is not about technology - it’s about developing cultures & mindsets that empower our people to deliver social impact. So how do we empower our people and nurture the psychological safety necessary for creativity?  Can we flip the pain points of employee recruitment and retention on their heads and take a fresh view to create the workforce for the future?  Surely this is the sector where human-centred approaches should thrive? 


In the wake of an era-defining pandemic, rather than grieve traditional employment and leadership, it is time to examine how we challenge and address outdated practices and mindsets that are not serving us.  As McKinsey argue, ‘the great attrition or great attraction - the choice is yours’.  I still hear many leaders grappling with questions like, how much time should be spent remotely vs in the office?  But to move forward, attention needs to shift from transactional and short term reactions, to understanding core employee needs: flexibility, autonomy and above all - to feel valued.

A recent Forbes article highlights how with a changing economy and inflation, nonprofit staff can no longer afford to provide their own resources for the work they believe in - without investment and support, they have less tolerance for operational inefficiencies.  If the sector continues to see people as an overhead and favour austerity over investment, this will only continue to worsen.  But salaries are only the tip of the iceberg.  The world is changing, as are the expectations and needs of our service users, our supporters - and our employees.  We need to open our ears to pave a bright new future that maximises rather than limits our social impact. 

Flexible working is a hot topic - from the explosion in hybrid and remote working to the rising popularity and advocacy for the 4 day week.  Flexible schedules, part-time work and permanent hybrid or remote schedules are emerging work trends that need to be embraced by the sector.   And what about the roles themselves? Job specs are copied and pasted with each exit, and we wonder why nonprofits remain siloed, progression is challenging and we struggle to retain staff.   Fixed, inflexible job architectures fail to capture the realities of today’s work or meet the needs of the people who perform the work, undermining morale.  

Mercer advocate for an evolution in work design to address employee attrition, skills gaps, employee priorities and to democratise work opportunities. Leading organisations are deconstructing jobs into tasks and skills, pulling untenable roles apart, and delivering work in an increasingly agile way. By focusing on the skills and work that are needed instead of on fixed, legacy job descriptions, these organisations will tear down the rigidity of the traditional structure. In its place, they’ll build new, malleable organisations that can deploy the right talent working in the right ways in the right places at the right time and cost. These agile organisations will be able to adapt swiftly to whatever the future brings.

There is clear opportunity where employee and business benefits meet that drive the imperative to move from discussion to action.  So what stands in our way?

Mental health & mindfulness has been a focus for leaders in the wake of the pandemic and while morale is still a priority, many organisations are now challenged with how to balance this with a growth mindset.  A culture of trust will allow employees the psychological safety to experiment with new practices to attract and retain talent.  And then once in the door, what can organisations do to nurture this mindset with the enthusiasm and dynamism it deserves?

Culltivating a growth mindset necessitates a growth strategy and plan to ensure alignment between organisational and employee goals.   Curiosity, questions and trend-watching must be encouraged to avoid an exclusively inward focus.  Emphasis on 360 degree feedback and employee development is a must.   Nonprofit managers must put more emphasis on professional growth than their counterparts in the for-profit world where incentives are mainly financial. 

Tough questions will need to be asked:  Do we shelter toxic leaders?  Do we have the right people in the right places (especially managers)? How strong was our culture before the pandemic? How are we building a sense of community?   With deep and progressive cultural shifts, organisations can engender a tolerance of failure, further a habitat of continuous learning, and allow for investment & scaling of successful pilots over time.  It will take bravery for leadership to make a step change and allow our teams to do the same.  But by encouraging creativity and agility we can create benefits for organisations and employees alike and ultimately deepen the impact we can make together.  

To stand still is to move backwards, so let’s go!

Sign up to CII’s +Impact Panel series to find out!  The +Impact event series will be held at the Helix and proudly supported by Mercer: Innovation, 20th September


Jane Trenaman, Nonprofit Leadership & Fundraising Strategic Advisor 

Jane is a nonprofit consultant with two decades of cross-sectoral experience specialising in strategy, fundraising, supporter experience and data strategy. She provides training, workshop facilitation, mentoring and coaching services across the nonprofit sector.  Her drive is her passion to maximise social impact of nonprofits sector wide.


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