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Allyson Kapin 6 min read

Nonprofits: It's Time to Innovate!

Can I be honest? I’m worried about the lack of nonprofit leadership creating a culture of innovation. While multi-channel outreach such as action alerts, microsites, social media, fundraising appeals, direct mail and telemarketing are good strategies to have in your toolbox to fundraise and market your organization; it’s simply not enough anymore. To truly raise your nonprofit’s profile (aka increase brand awareness), grow your constituency, and raise even more money in 2011 and beyond, organizations need to also focus on innovating.

A couple of weeks ago, J’aime Ohm won TechCrunch’s Distrupt Hackathon for developing a great app called WiseDame. The location based app is aimed at keeping women safe and was inspired by FourSquare and Gowalla which some critics feel is a bit too stalkerish. Instead WiseDame lets people you care about know where you are.  For example, one of the main features of the app sends an alert to your selected friends and family to check in on you if and only if you don’t check in this location by X time.

“It’s like a Black Box that provides info on what you were last doing before an emergency occurred,” said Ohm.

While I whole-heartedly applaud Ohm for creating such a useful app, I can’t help but ask why didn’t a women’s group who focuses on domestic violence or sexual assault create this? Probably it’s because, like most nonprofits, they haven’t invested in high level technology staff such as a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) or CIO (Chief Information Officer) who can focus on matching technology and product development with the organizations programming, advocacy, fundraising, and marketing priorities.

According to the Nonprofit Leadership List, out of 1400 nonprofits, foundations, universities and museums surveyed, only 45 organizations have CTO’s. About 300 have CIO’s. 

Here’s another example of a potential missed opportunity aimed at green consumers that an environmental nonprofit could have created as a fundraising model. ethicalDeal is a new startup in town. They have taken the LivingSocial model and adapted it to the environmentally friendly “green” movement. Their goal is to tap into the growing “green” market and lifestyle by making it easy and fun for people to try out the best green stuff their city has to offer. Their vision is to advance the green movement on a city-by-city basis across North America and they’re launching their first ethicalDeal in Vancouver this month! Great idea. Right? Could a nimble environmental nonprofit with a green consumer mission and who had invested in building a team with strong technical, business, and fundraising savvy staff launched a similar venture as a fundraising source and built this into a sustainable fundraising model?  You bet, though admittedly this would have been a significant undertaking for a nonprofit. However, it could have paid off with the right nonprofit and seasoned team.

Over the years, there have been some great examples in the nonprofit community of nonprofits using social entrepreneurship models to raise money. DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides breakfast, outreach, and counseling services to homeless people living on the streets, also runs a popular full service catering company to raise money for the organization and provides culinary job training.

Nonprofits not only need to take a serious look at the social entrepreneurship model for fundraising and expanding their constituency, but they need to invest in using technology as a tool for innovation around their advocacy and programming issues. We can’t rely on Silicon Valley to constantly lead product and app development and do it for us. Nonprofits have some very talented in-house experts. Empower and build your teams to start taking charge and innovating.  

What's your personal experience with nonprofis fostering a culture of innovation?



Allyson Kapin

Allyson has been named one of "Top Tech Titans" by the Washingtonian, one of the Most Influential Women In Tech by Fast Company, and one of the top 30 women entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter by Forbes for her leadership role in technology and social media. As Founding Partner of Rad Campaign, she leads the firm's client and online strategic services. For over a decade Allyson has helped non-profit organizations and political campaigns create dynamic and award-winning websites and online marketing and recruitment campaigns. She works side-by-side with her clients to meet their web needs and maximize their online effectiveness to create real world impact.