by Tiffany Crosby on 09/12/15
The Necessity of Innovation
Non-profit organizations are tasked with solving some of the world's most pressing issues. Whether they've sworn to tackle poverty, homelessness, human sex-trafficking, human health issues or other societal ills, their challenges are formidable. These organizations need the best and the brightest. They need people that:
- Are willing to look for opportunities where others only see problems.
- Are willing to challenge long-held assumptions.
- Ask what if instead of rehashing what's already been tried
They need people that are innovative risk-takers. These are people that believe that it's their mission to change the world. They're not discouraged by negativity or criticism. They're ready to take on what seems to be impossible.
Unfortunately, many non-profits are not set-up to welcome and embrace the very people that they need. They have systems that discourage innovation instead of encouraging it. There's a reason why, just like the profit sector where disruptive innovation occurs in start-ups, novel approaches to societal issues arise from new non-profit organizations or social enterprises. This blog series will tackle the issues affecting innovation in non-profits, beginning with mission.
The Challenge of Mission Statements
Part of the issue can be traced back to mission. Mission statements while useful can also be blinding. The purpose of a mission statement is to state why you exist. It works in conjunction with a vision statement that states your desired end state or what your organization seeks to accomplish. Mission statements are meant to be short, ideally one-sentence. They shouldn't define the what or how. As soon as that happens, you've put on blinders that can block your ability to identify new ways to approach the issue.
Drilling wells may not be the best way to address the issue of cleaning drinking water. It's certainly an option, but it's not the only course of action. It doesn't belong in a mission statement. Building homes may not be the best way to address the issue of homelessness. It's certainly an option; however financial literacy or job readiness may be more important. Statement the activity that the non-profit needs to do is akin to stating that a business needs a certain system or application. It's an innovation no-no.
A mission statement that includes the what and how assumes an answer to the problem and limits the ability to think more broadly about the issue. Just as we do in a for profit business, non-profit organizations need to decompose the issues into it's contributing factors. And they need to continue to ask why until that sticky, determining factor (or cornerstone or strong hold if you wish) is identified.
The True Problem May Not Be Obvious
The answer to why girls aren't receiving an education in certain communities might surprise you. It may have nothing to do with devaluing girls or devaluing education. It may be as practical as needing them to travel several miles, multiple times a day to fetch water. There's just no time. If that's the case, solving the water issue is the first step toward solving the education issue. If you're mission statement says that you're going to build school for girls, it misses the point. You can build these schools, but they girls won't show up. However, if it states that you're going to make education accessible to girls, now solving the water issue fits within your mission because lack of access to clean water is a barrier to accessing education. By the way, building schools also fits within that mission, as does addressing cultural issues. Any factor that serves as a significant barrier to education suddenly fits. The opportunities for innovation within the confines of your mission statement are endless. You now have the flexibility to adapt to changing situations while still be anchored to an overarching purpose.
So, as a leader of a non-profit organization (regardless of your role), I leave you with this one question:
Does your mission statement allow for innovative thinking?