Q&A: Volunteers as Agents of Innovation

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Here’s our first post in a new Q&A blog series.  Huge thanks to everyone who responded.

One of the first emails we received was from Jennifer in Toronto, who asked:

“How can volunteers act as agents of innovation in not-for-profit organizations? And conversely, what practices can not-for-profit organizations adopt to allow innovation to happen?”

We love to see people connecting the dots between volunteers and innovation. Almost every week, talented people approach our organization looking to become involved. Just yesterday we connected with someone whose resume listed technical expertise in Gas Chromatography and Tropical Helicopter Underwater Escape Training. We haven’t figured out how to engage him yet – but imagine the possibilities!

Each time we connect with a new community member, we are faced with the potential of new ideas, approaches and opinions. It can be very exciting to invite someone with a different perspective into your daily work– and also scary, especially at first.

Because innovation isn’t about making small improvements, it’s about doing things completely differently. It requires being truly open to and proactively encouraging new thinking.  It means being willing to change – in big ways and small ones. It means giving up control and the idea that you already have all the answers.

It’s not always easy. And it’s the best part of my job – hands down.

Just this week, we engaged an interior design expert to advise us on some changes we’re planning to make to our physical space.  After reviewing our plan, he diplomatically recommended some additional ways we could leverage our small budget to create a few dramatic changes.  He then walked around our office and – with our team’s permission and participation – rearranged and re-purposed what already existed. This freed up additional budget for the high-impact changes. An hour of his time achieved some quick (free!) wins and set us up for success in the weeks ahead. And most importantly, our perspective of what’s possible also changed dramatically.

As my colleague Erin watched him completely change the feel of our meeting room simply by rearranging a few tables, she whispered to me, “I want to yell – innovation!”

Here are a few concrete conditions for success:
1.    Start with an open discussion – explore what experience, skills and expertise each new person wants to contribute, and what kind of role would be most meaningful for them. Then you can creatively match their talent and interests with a current project or one on your “wish list”.

2.    Provide a thorough orientation – take the time required to thoroughly introduce each new team member to your mission, vision, values and organizational culture. This orientation is critical to ensure their work is well aligned with the rest of the team.

3.    Agree on clear parameters and deliverables – once you both agree on a specific role, draft a formal position description with concrete deliverables. Often, you’ll require a few conversations back and forth to ensure clarity.

4.    Embrace learning and change – working with incredibly talented people is a great opportunity to change and grow. Move past the status quo, be open-minded and cultivate the ability to live with ambiguity. Sometimes having more questions than answers is what sparks creativity.

We’d love to hear from you! What examples of innovation can you share that involve volunteer engagement? What are the conditions that made this innovation possible?

Have a question about building an abundant organization? Send it our way! If we answer it on our blog, we’ll send you a free copy of The Abundant Not-for-Profit.

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