New Bridgespan Survey of Nonprofit Leaders Surfaces Innovation Aspiration Gap

08/01/2017 | 2 min |


Eighty percent of the nonprofit leaders surveyed cite innovation as an urgent imperative for achieving large-scale impact but only 40 percent say they have the capacity for it
BOSTON, August 1, 2017­­­—As part of a recent study supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, The Bridgespan Group surveyed 145 nonprofit leaders on their organizations’ capacity to innovate and found that while 80 percent of them aspire to innovation, only 40 percent say their organizations are equipped for it.
Nidhi Sahni, a Bridgespan Group partner and co-author of the study said, “This gap worries us because most respondents say that if they don’t come up with fresh solutions to the sector’s myriad challenges, such as improving the academic performance of at-risk middle schoolers or increasing African farmers’ crop yields, they won’t achieve the large-scale impact they seek.”
Roughly half of the survey’s respondents also report that their organizations are subject to destabilizing regulatory shocks and policy shifts, while confronting growing competition from other social sector organizations for funding, talent and influence, making innovation an urgent imperative.
According to Laura Lanzerotti, a Bridgespan partner and co-author, “There are ways for nonprofits to become more effective at innovation. For most organizations making meaningful progress against the innovation-aspiration gap requires systematic exploration and experimentation, but too often they wait until they face a crisis, when it is much harder to create the conditions and capabilities required to generate innovations that have impact.”
The study looked at a variety of organizations such as; the International Rescue Committee, BRAC and identified six elements common to nonprofits with a high capacity to innovate.
  • Catalytic leadership that empowers people to solve problems that matter
  • A curious culture, where people look beyond their day-to-day obligations, question assumptions, and constructively challenge each other’s thinking as well as the status quo
  • Diverse teams with different backgrounds, experiences, attitudes, and capabilities—the feedstock for growing an organization’s capacity to generate breakthrough ideas
  • Porous boundaries that let information and insights flow into the organization from outside voices (including beneficiaries) and across the organization itself
  • Idea pathways that provide structure and processes for identifying, testing, and transforming promising concepts into needle-moving solutions
  • The ready resources—funding, time, training, and tools—that are vital for supporting innovation work.
In addition to surfacing these patterns, the Bridgespan/Rockefeller team also created a suite of free online resources to help people understand their organizations’ current innovation capacity, identify areas for improvement, and access downloadable tools for learning, planning and action.
According to Sahni, “Innovation is not a silver-bullet solution that will automatically make an organization fit for a challenging future. However, our survey and interviews suggest that the six elements we surfaced are useful staring points for building the capacity to innovate continuously, and thereby do what matters most: improve human and environmental well-being.”
About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group is a global organization that collaborates with mission-driven leaders, organizations, and philanthropists to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need. We bring a rigorous approach, shared passion, and deep social sector experience. Our services include consulting to nonprofits and philanthropists, leadership development support, and developing and sharing insights.
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