Notes from the Field: CEP’s First Innovation Week

Lisa Knichols

Earlier this summer CEP held its first Innovation Week, where all staff shifted focus from their everyday work to outside-the-box ideas that could move CEP’s mission forward. These projects could be anything related to CEP’s mission: ideas they’ve had before, but never had time to work on; analyses they’ve always been curious to run, but no client had ever requested; tasks outside of the usual purview of their job — anything that would positively impact CEP’s work was fair game. Senior leadership encouraged everyone to decide how they wanted to spend this week. There was no hierarchy, no need to check with supervisors — the goal was to simply to try something out and run with it!

As a summer fellow at CEP, I was intrigued to see this kind of opportunity presented at a nonprofit. In studying leadership and organizational behavior in graduate school, we often read about the power of intrinsic motivation and how business can harness it for a myriad of aims, from innovation to burnout prevention to employee retention. We’ve heard that “innovation time” was how two of the world’s most used products were invented: Gmail at Google and Post-it Notes at 3M. What kind of comparable innovative solutions, then, could come out of the nonprofit sector?

During Innovation Week at CEP, staff internally shared an article which highlights the 50 best places to work for innovators. Five of those selected were nonprofits (which includes large organizations such as Johns Hopkins and Mozilla). And it led me to consider: why aren’t more nonprofits on a list like this, and why don’t more nonprofits spend time on Innovation Weeks of their own?

The nonprofit sector has already been discussing the answers to these questions. One answer lies in the familiar calls for multi-year unrestricted funding — funding that could be used not only for overhead but for professional development and innovation at nonprofits. Another is in the similarly persistent calls for strategies to prevent burnout among leaders in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits exist to work on some of the most intractable and complex problems we face as a society; arguably, they have a stronger need than traditional business for innovative solutions.

And yet, for many nonprofit organizations, taking time to hold an Innovation Week would be next to impossible. When I think about the nonprofits I’ve worked for and with over the past decade, it is very hard to imagine an Innovation Week happening at these organizations. The demands of regular programs and services, and expectations from funders, often limit the possibility of working on new ideas outside of the day-to-day scope. The thought of finding the capacity and funding needed to step away temporarily from already demanding workloads, for many nonprofits, is daunting. But beyond funding and staff capacity, there is also the fear among some nonprofit leaders, their boards, and their funders that changing how an organization’s resources are directed — particularly towards something as risky and potentially intangible as “innovation time”— could be a waste of effort and funds, and an irresponsible detraction of resources from the work already being done to meet their mission. However, there is an important difference between mission-creep and the fear of failure. An idea like Innovation Week requires a growth mindset at the individual, organizational, and funder level, where failure and setbacks are signs of learning and improving, and a means to positively impact the organization’s work in the long run.

As CEP moves forward, I’m excited to see where projects from Innovation Week might go from here. Staff worked on a range of topics from services for funder collaboratives, exploring data related to equity across the sector, options for information sharing about giving strategies, among many others. While staff clearly enjoyed the opportunity to work on new projects of their choosing, many people expressed how much they enjoyed working across departments and with colleagues they don’t normally, or may have never, worked with. It remains to be seen if the equivalent of the next philanthropic Post-it Note will come out of CEP’s Innovation Week, but the employee enthusiasm and satisfaction that resulted is a success in of itself. An organization’s culture, and how its staff perceives it, directly impacts that organization’s effectiveness, as CEP shows through its Staff Perception Report (SPR).

When reflecting on Innovation Week in connection to CEP’s mission to make philanthropy more effective, the connection seems apparent to me: doesn’t effective philanthropy include seeking to support and promote effective nonprofits? Of course, funders and nonprofits each have their own distinct and varying metrics to evaluate their effectiveness. But regardless of issue area, nonprofits could strongly benefit from a sustainable strategy that allows them to capitalize on their staff’s intrinsic motivation and connects to employee retention and organizational growth. Perhaps time and space for innovation could be that very strategy.

Lisa Knichols is pursuing an MBA in nonprofit management and an MPP in social policy at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Prior to graduate school, she spent a decade working in the nonprofit sector. This summer, she was a fellow at the Center for Effective Philanthropy through the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy.

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