Innovation and Creativity: The Added Value of Nonprofits

We have reached the time of the year in our cyclical reading of the Torah where we start at the beginning once again. The creation story in the book of Bereshit (Genesis) is not only exciting, it can also guide our work with nonprofit organizations.

The commentaries on the Biblical text teach us that this was not God’s first attempt to create a world, rather the only successful one since all earlier worlds were destroyed because they did not live up to God’s expectations. There is an important message in this story.

The creative process is a very important part of an organization’s life, however, it does not mean that each time we create something it will succeed. If a decision is made to change an existing policy or implement a new program and it does not work, then it is important to re-evaluate what went wrong and if possible, to go back to the beginning to figure out how to make it work.

When it comes to an organization’s policies, practices and programs, the most important quality of those overseeing the process is flexibility. Because when an innovative idea does not respond to identified needs or serve constituents, the best solution is to reconsider the original decision to change the policy or implement the program.

In many instances the board of directors is composed of a diverse group of people who bring a variety of skills to the nonprofit organization in question. When policies are changed or when new programs are instituted it is the board that is responsible for the allocation of resources necessary to implement these changes. It is also the board that has the right to question decisions if they appear not to bring the organization closer to its desired results.

To be sure, there is always a risk when an organization proposes innovative and creative ideas because there is no way to know whether they will be accepted and approved – or even if they will succeed.

However, if risks are never taken or creative attempts never made then nonprofit agencies will not be fulfilling their role as the arm of the voluntary sector. For unlike public sector services and private sector businesses that are stymied because of bureaucracy, politics or risk-averse investors, the nonprofit organizations often have more leeway to take risks.

In the nonprofit sector, the creativity comes into play when responding to social, educational or health needs to ultimately better peoples’ lives. Voluntary organizations have the flexibility to take some risks when responding to emerging needs as long as they are prepared to be accountable to the board for the use of its resources. When an emergency situation arises, the board has the power to redirect resources and reallocate them to provide the appropriate services.

We have seen this occur during such crises as the tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina in the United States when voluntary nonprofit organizations were able to respond with the needed services by appealing for additional funds and reallocating financial and personnel resources. In many ways, they were able to be there more effectively and efficiently than the services in the public service.

However, there are risks. Sometimes decisions are made to provide services that are either not needed or not utilized. A case in point is a nonprofit organization in a major city that identified the need for a hospice that was sensitive to the needs of clients from a particular ethnic group. Funds were raised and the service was initiated but it was under-utilized even though the organization had done due diligence in documenting the need and confirming the potential use of a service focused on a particular ethnic group.

A short time after the hospice opened, its goals were redefined and they began to accept patients across a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The risk was worth taking. The community appreciated the initial attempt to respond to a perceived need for a specific population and in the end the general community benefited because the services were expanded to meet the needs of multiple ethnic, cultural and religious groups. If the agency had not taken the risk to initiate a new service then there might not have been the development of a more pluralistic service catering to a broader hospice population.

As we learn from the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, the risk of being creative can lead to a more innovative approach than originally planned. The courage is being able to try something new and, if it does not succeed, wisdom is gained from learning from our mistakes. If God’s attempt to be innovative failed and needed to be redeveloped than certainly those of us in the nonprofit sector can imitate this approach as we seek to better our society. If at first we do not succeed in our innovative efforts then we should continue to work on finding a creative response that best achieves our goals.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.