Risk Aversion is the biggest barrier to nonprofit Innovation.
There are already some really good answers here mentioning resources, accountability, investment, leadership, and lack of necessity (thanks to Darrell Francis and Makarand Sahasrabuddhe). Yet the foundational issue of risk aversion was overlooked. It exists in many nonprofits. Most nonprofits have an excitement around doing something new to achieve their mission. Similarly most nonprofits seek to mitigate risk in the rest of their organization.
Lets look at an example.
If attempting to stamp out childhood hunger for 20k kids in our city is going to be hard, difficult, and involve overcoming a lot of challenges. Those challenges will be relational, organizational, institutional, logistical, and more. So now you want to introduce an innovative mobile app to stream line XYZ… it’s not worth the energy/fight/focus/attention to do it successfully. Nonprofits are looking for ways to address the challenges in front of them everyday and those challenges are mostly large interpersonal/relational issues.
It’s hard to divert scarce resources to projects/innovation that won’t have a direct pay off. To fail (or to succeed to slowly) could cause donors to back out, and existing partners to loose interest.
So how do you help a nonprofit innovate?
You need to minimize the risk involved. Often times this can be done with examples of other organizations who have done similar things. Get to know the other nonprofits in your area so that you can share their stories. Very few people have the desire to be the first to do something, but most people don’t want to be left behind. Understand how your innovation lives between those two extremes.
Furthermore you can often become innovative through smaller iterative steps. Many innovations can be accomplished in a dozen small steps instead of one large leap. Break down the most logical way to get to your innovative vision – what the nonprofit will look like when you’re done. Come up with ways to measure and adjust strategy along the way, and write it all down. The more you can share the strategy, process, and safeguards in place the easy it will be to get the buy in from stakeholders. Writing it out also creates a document that can be used to keep the strategy accountable along the way (and not become a black hole for resources).
Innovation is hard work anywhere. It is done all the time in the nonprofit world. If you want to be a part of that process you must be willing to invest the time in planning, relationships, and execution to see it through.