A Publication of WTVP

Innovation cannot take place without creating the spaces necessary for it to happen.

My paternal grandmother stood as tall as the average fifth grader. The daughter of an Iowa farmer, a teacher, mother of four and the wife of a small businessman, Grandma was wicked smart. She was certainly intelligent enough to earn a teaching degree from Iowa State Teacher’s College in the mid-1930s, but what set Dorothy Ruby apart was her ability to creatively solve problems.

For example, late one evening when my father was 15 years old, he was attempting to hoist the engine out of his prized 1947 Ford. He was making such a racket in the garage that my grandmother investigated the source of the commotion. The engine was two inches short of clearing the car because the low garage ceiling prevented the hoist from lifting the engine any higher. The engine was stuck, and my father was stumped.

Grandma wiped her hands on her apron and assessed the situation. She asked her son how the hoist operated and what he had already tried to solve the problem, and listened intently to his explanation. Thinking for a few seconds, she smiled and gave him two directives: Let some air out of the front tires to gain enough clearance for the hoist to free the engine from the car—and stop making such a loud ruckus!

Obstacles to Nonprofit Innovation
The word innovation is used often in today’s economy. Companies must innovate—or strategically predict changes in their market and efficiently transform their products, services and processes to remain competitive—and it’s no different for nonprofits. Research indicates that nonprofits coordinate innovative responses to complex social problems like homelessness, illiteracy, poverty and obesity; however, they struggle to continually innovate over time as social problems erupt and evolve in our communities. Social scientists identify several obstacles preventing nonprofit organizations from ongoing innovation:

The Space for Innovation
In light of these obstacles, how does a nonprofit organization become more innovative? By creating the spaces necessary for innovation.

In all, innovation is sparked by actively listening, constantly learning, making mistakes, generating new approaches to problems, creating a simple plan of action, allocating resources to the effort and monitoring progress. However, none of this can happen without creating the space for innovation in the first place—so let some air out of the tires. iBi

Eileen A. Ruby Setti is a partner in the consulting firm Ruby & Associates, which provides specialized services for nonprofits, and a PhD Candidate at Northern Illinois University studying public and nonprofit organizations.