Branding, Culture, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Failure to Launch: Innovation in the Non Profit Sector

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.

http://www.newyorker.com/services/referral?messageKey=763ba3ab33e644e6d3da06ced22222ce

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.

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Advocacy, Conservation, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Do Environmentalists Ever Get Laid – Part 2

Bad pickup lines are the stuff of Hollywood movies (and a particular fascination of mine.)  You know the type, the guy or girl who’s convinced they have the killer pickup line, the one that never fails?

And that’s the second reason I have to wonder if conservation advocates ever get laid – they are solemn believers in the absolute power of message.  And as a result, they spend literally millions of dollars on research and consultants searching for the perfect message, like Ahab searching for the white whale.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Message is important.  Research is crucial.  And far be it from me to question the wisdom of hiring smart consultants.

But it’s the damage caused by the false hope that there exists some set of words that will have such transformative power, if only they can be discovered.  I’ve sat in hours of meetings with groups looking for “the” message on climate change.  And those meetings have been both sad and funny.  “Drowning polar bears!”   “Your barbecue grill is safe!”   “Changing your light bulb will save the world.”  Conservation advocates are true believers in the fundamental rightness of their own values, and utterly convinced that they can convert everyone to their church.  Utterly convinced that there is some magic phrase or set of words that will magically convert Homer Simpson into Al Gore.

Just look at history.  In a single generation, we completely changed social norms around drinking and smoking while pregnant.  In the 80’s and 90’s the gay community adopted safe sex, (but then began to abandon it in the 2000’s.)  Across the globe, advocates have been able to achieve targeted behavior change, but message is only one part of a complex puzzle.

And yet still the conservation community searches for the perfect message.  The problem isn’t just that it’s wrong.  The problem is pursuing a single strategy almost totally to the exclusion of the broader range of strategies and tactics.  When you bet the house on a single bet, you’re risking everything.

There’s not one audience.  There’s not one message.  There’s just sound strategic marketing & communications, fully integrated and based on data to be sure you’re meeting the customer where they are, not where you want them to be, or where you are.

It’s time that conservation advocates moved out of their parent’s basement, learned the value of authentic engagement with their intended, and practice some adult relationship skills.

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