15 Jul

(This is cross-posted on the TechSoup Blog)

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The Future Of Nonprofits, by my friends and collagues, the very smart and innovative, David J. Neff and Randal C. Moss, is a must-read for any leader or a staff member that has ambitions of being a leader at a nonprofit. It is an accessible read and reassured me that much of what I thought was unique to my innovative team is happening all around. We all make up systems as we go along, we all look for inspiration at non-parallel models, we all incorporate game-theory into our work, and we enjoy thinking about how to bring incentives into the act of participating in our communities. We are thinking in the correct framework of nurturing and cultivating innovation.

What I didn’t know prior to reading this book, however, was how to spot innovation and help staff members stay focused and motivated on growing our programs. We all know that we are never at completion with a web product. All of our projects are a work in progress and if you are only about creating a PDF and calling your report a signed, sealed, delivered product, you are probably missing some valuable opportunities. The book reminds us of the value of transparency in our everyday work processes and the benefits of letting your staff have the freedom to re-think your existing model.

David and Randy (I’ve presented with them several times, hugged them, had beers with them, I’ve even hung out in our Nonprofit Commons in Second Life virtual island with them, so yes, we are on a first name basis) reminded me that innovation doesn’t just happen. In fact, there are organizations that build innovative discovery into their structured work day (think of Google’s 20% rule that all stafferes are encouraged to spend 20% of their work day doing a project that is of their design and choosing, without the approval of leadership.) The Future Of Nonprofits identifies the essence of good product design and loyal, passionate staff members as having this kind of freedom.

This is a book that will speak to the leaders in your organization; and not only the C-level leaders, but also the people like me, David and Randy, who are innovative program managers and directors, but not executives. In fact, this book often takes that vantage point, and it’s a unique position to be in (to be a visionary and also an implementer, worker-bee).

This book also talks about how having innovation steeped in the culture of the organization (all the way up to the Board of Director level) is more important than having people with top-notch tech skills. It is much harder to harness and retain passionate staffers and they are the ones who will be thinking about work on off-hours, trying to come up with creative ways to share and amplify your mission with a broader sector than your existing constiuency.

The book has a good balance of interviews and case studies with leading experts from the field, talking about their day to day work (like Wendy Harmon, social media manager for the American Red Cross and Danny Ingram Chief Mission officer of the American Cancer Society) and practical tips about how to think about your work within a framework of innovation. The authors break down broad topics like Communications, Fundraising and Staffing and “futurecast” ways to re-think these high-level, common nonprofit strategies with an eye toward a supporting a paradigm-shift.

I also appreciate that the book sets the reader up with a few, manageable personal endeavors and challenges to take on right away, removing the theory from the abstract and giving sample worksheets and questions to help you quickly arrive at practical solutions to help your organization futurecast, promote broader awareness and achieve action-based results, while remembering that there is nothing wrong with celebrating the element of fun. Remember, I have not simply had beers with these guys, I’ve flown around Second Life with their avatars and had virtual beers with them. And those kind of rewards are what make us continue to look for new models and reinvent our work.

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