Making Nonprofit Innovation Sustainable

Even 10 years after the fact, it’s still impossible to escape discussion about the 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids.

When Ben Kaplan and I went over to United Way of East Central Iowa’s office to talk about their experience with NewBoCo’s Intrapreneur Academy, Leslie Wright, Senior Vice President of Community Building, was just getting off the phone with the Marshalltown Area United Way office. Their community was recently devastated by a tornado.

“We know a lot about disaster recovery here in Cedar Rapids,” said Wright. “If there’s anything we’ve learned from our experience in 2008 that’s helpful, we’re happy to share it.”

The flood’s effects are long-reaching, but an unexpected one for Wright was how it gave her an innovative mindset.

“We [United Way] have tended to be an organization that idolized project management, but what that meant was that we wanted to plan everything and wouldn’t even start until we were done,” said Wright. “But, in the 2008 flood, we couldn’t even have a plan. We had to learn how to build the boat while we were trying to sail it.”

Innovation was one of United Way’s core values, but making it sustainable inside their organization was a challenge. They’re not alone — research shows many nonprofits struggle to be innovative. And there just isn’t the same support for nonprofits as there is for corporations and startups seeking to be innovative.

In 2017, NewBoCo partnered with United Way to build that support system for nonprofit innovation in Eastern Iowa. This partnership led to the creation of NewBoCo’s Social Good Accelerator (officially launching in September) and a pilot series of workshops designed specifically for nonprofits looking to innovate.

“NewBoCo is a nonprofit, so we uniquely understand the struggles other nonprofits face while trying to become innovative,” said Mandy Webber, NewBoCo’s Director of Innovation.

Feedback from these initial workshops influenced the design of NewBoCo’s Intrapreneur Academy. Intrapreneur Academy is a year-long program where organizations send a team of 3–8 people to learn about a different innovation competency (Agile, Methods, Strategy, and Culture) each quarter.

United Way joined a group of six teams representing a mix of for profit, nonprofit, and government organizations in the first Intrapreneur Academy cohort back in April. And in just the first few months of the program alone, it’s already made a difference for United Way.

“What got us through the disaster recovery [after the 2008 flood] was our willingness, our trust, to take a risk together,” said Wright. “Part of what you’re doing in Intrapreneur Academy is teaching people how to take small risks together.”

The capacity for innovation is already there at United Way, and Intrapreneur Academy is giving the organization the mindset and methods to capitalize on it.

“We bring back a new tool we’ve learned at each Intrapreneur Academy session to our all-staff meetings,” said Wright.

One of these tools came from a customer mapping exercise led by Mandy Webber. During the exercise, the cohort learned how to better understand and identify their customers, which meant donors for United Way.

“We used the exercise to help our development team understand who the donors in our Women United Group are,” said Wright. “It was new for our team, but it ended up being incredibly helpful for our strategic planning process.”

Shannon Hanson’s “Agile” Office

They’ve also been using the Agile Mindset to restructure their marketing efforts. When you walk into Shannon Hanson’s office, the Vice President of Marketing and Communications, you’ll see that all of her team’s upcoming work is outlined with bright Post-it notes with clear descriptions. A core part of the Agile Mindset is making work visible. Having work visible and transparent to all members of a team increases collaboration.

“We knew we wanted to be more collaborative — that’s a big piece of where innovation comes from,” said Wright. “This helps us do that without requiring every person to be in the same room all the time.”

Nonprofit innovation needs more support in Eastern Iowa, but Intrapreneur Academy provides an easy entry point for nonprofits seeking ways to engage.

When asked if other area nonprofits could benefit from Intrapreneur Academy, Wright laughed and said, “Who wouldn’t?”