Innovation. It’s one of those buzzwords that has the nonprofit world aflutter. Grantseekers load it up in their proposals. Grantmakers talk to one another about their innovative ideas. People throw around “I read this thing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review…” constantly. Heck, it’s even starting to sound like a bad word to say we work in “nonprofit” industry as compared to “social innovation.”
Everyone is trying to find the next new big idea that’s going to solve all of our problems. And while do-gooders search far and wide to be a part of the next new thing, innovation is likely smacking them in the face without them knowing it. Innovation isn’t always the slick technological fix to an intractable problem (no, we do not all need to create mobile apps). Nor does it require using ‘big data’ to better maximize resources. Innovation isn’t always spelled out in capital letters and screaming “Eureka!” It can be more subtle, less sexy. The health clinic that provides warm referrals to other social services, or the individual nonprofits who meet regularly to talk about shared clients.
I know y’all love an overly simplified proverb just as much as me, right? So you’ve probably heard the one that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Unfortunately, nonprofit organizations are often incentivized in this sector to stand out alone and attempt to demonstrate solitary success. But bringing others on board is more efficient, and because it shifts to a new way of working together than what we’re used to, it becomes innovative. Like I said, it may not be flashy, but call it what it is.
One strategy our team and many funders find particularly innovative is the more formal nonprofit collaborations through initiatives such as the East Durham Children’s Initiative. This wasn’t an idea that began in Durham, but it’s still a relatively new concept for us here in the Triangle. Thankfully, there are leaders willing to take on risk and try something new in the interest of doing right by our kids. As we learn more about the complex nature of intergenerational poverty, organizations are realizing more than ever that no one has the magic bullet. We must think and work together, bringing together our collective resources and talents in order to truly solve these tough issues.
I attended Triangle Community Foundation’s What Matters event last week and we all learned about the award-winning collaboration, Fostering Youth Opportunities. Many agencies — The Hope Center at Pullen, Wake County Human Services, Wake Tech Community College, PLM Families Together, EDSI Tomorrow’s Leaders, and Methodist Home for Children — have come together to create a “one stop shop” for young people. The facility they’re working to create makes it easy for young people to access a holistic set of services. I’m certain that this many organizations coming together in a cohesive way to formulate a plan to collaborate was not easy. But it’s inspiring to see what can happen when people come together, and undoubtedly, their outcomes will be impressive and long-lasting for the young people they work with.
I’m currently reading “The Innovators,” a book by Walter Isaacson that traces the biographies of the leaders who have contributed to our technologically advanced society. The premise of the book is to challenge the familiar narrative that these advancements in computing were spearheaded by solitary geniuses working alone in garages. He demonstrates that innovation is an inherently collective process, where ideas collide and are refined through exchanges with others. Here at Fletcher, we’re betting on that being the case. While the innovative projects we support may not result in new economies or breathtaking leaps in technology, we’re okay with that because it’s not our role. We hope that as a connector, our partners’ work can be further amplified through shared effort and relatively small tweaks that can make all the difference to the communities we’re trying to support.
Top photo of preschoolers celebrating the end of the year at the East Durham Children Initiative’s LEAP Academy preschool.