Recent airplane time gave me a chance to catch up on some back New Yorker articles, and one in particular really grabbed me. It’s a very fascinating article about Google, their approach to innovation, and the search for a self-driving car.
Several points jumped out at me as relevant for the non-profit sector.
First, all the tech companies and almost all manufacturing companies have a significant R&D function – well staffed and well resourced. Non-profits don’t have R&D – everyone works 110% on operation of the current program, with incremental improvement a vague goal, but no serious R&D. That seems to me a systematic barrier to innovation coming from within. It may also be a cultural barrier against adopting innovation from outside. Most organizations are like organisms – they have finely developed cultures that function as “immune systems” – resistant to outside ideas.
Second, all the innovators have an idea of the “moon shot” they’re pursuing, whether its self-driving cars, Google Glass, Amazon’s delivery drones, etc. The non-profit sector doesn’t even have a vision of what the “moon shot” would look like. So of course there’s no serious pursuit of it. The sector is left idling on the launch pad because it hasn’t identified a destination.
And third, innovation is often produced by unorthodox methods. DARPA’s use of the Grand Challenge is a great example of how they did something fairly out-of-the-box, particularly for a government agency, and by so doing, spurred tremendous innovation by a significant number of contestants. All for not very much money, in the scheme of things. The line that jumped out at me was that “in one year, they’d made more progress than their contractors had in twenty!” The non-profit sector is fairly risk averse – reluctant to change vendors, reluctant to adopt strategies from outside the sector, etc.
It all starts with the vision of the moon shot.
Imagine convening a dozen major non-profits from different sectors – innovative legacy organizations like Audubon, Habitat, ACLU, etc., along with a few disruptors like Charity Water and Do Something – for a private summit to envision what the moon shot could be. And then add in some genuine innovators from outside the sector – people accustomed to breaking through conventional structures and systems.
That could be a powerful start.
Or we could continue to languish on the launch pad.
Idling our engines,,, burning fuel,,, wasting time.