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Innovate for the Greater Good

Author: Lomesh Shah and Gretchen Barry
January, 2014 Issue

When you think about nonprofit organizations, innovation isn’t something that immediately comes to mind—yet it should. There are countless organizations and individuals forging new paths and creating new opportunities by applying unique and holistic visions to their missions. These forward-thinking leaders are embracing innovation as an organic function of their organizations and, fortunately, they aren’t afraid to share ideas. Bringing innovation to an organization is often just a matter of inspiration.

Improving on existing ideas

Ceres Community Project, based in Sebastopol, has innovative, forward-thinking leaders who successfully manage a multifaceted mission. Part of that mission is to “build healthy communities by restoring fresh, whole and organic food to its place as the foundation of health.” Its 2013 goal was to serve at least 60,000 meals to community members who are living with a serious illness. Another facet engages young people as volunteer gardeners and chefs, teaching teens that healthy food, minds and bodies contribute to a healthier and more connected community. “Our innovation is in taking the basic idea of a meal service for people in need and developing that as an integrated approach to building community health for multiple generations and in multiple ways,” says Deborah Ramelli, Ceres communications and fund development manager.
The Ceres team has extended its unique program to other communities through a turn-key approach that simplifies the startup process. One community that’s had great success with the Ceres model is the Bay Village Project in Bay Village, Ohio. It began as a food program but had so many teens who wanted to get involved that it added house cleaning, yard work and grocery shopping. Although satellite organizations aren’t new, the Ceres Affiliate Program is a fully developed model that includes a startup toolkit, an operations manual, in-house training and an integrated data management system developed by an up-and-coming national CRM provider for nonprofits in collaboration with Ceres. The program can be modified to fit a community nonprofit’s mission and lets each affiliate have its own identity. “The affiliates have a very big head start in being able to run their programs efficiently and track how many people they’re helping—something that many small nonprofits aren’t able to do in the first few years,” says Ramelli.
The Ceres Affiliate Program goal is to expand to 25 cities by the end of 2015.

Embracing social media

Social media is another way in which the nonprofit sector has embraced and even led the way in innovation. Where some segments of the for-profit world have struggled to make sense of social media as a marketing tactic, the nonprofit community has forged headlong into the new media.
Social media is inherently story-driven—an approach that’s custom made for charitable organizations. Many are using social media to connect with supporters in ways that couldn’t be achieved before the technology. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media venues are a gift to the nonprofit sector, offering many examples of successful projects and campaigns developed by different organizations.
“Nonprofits, more than many industries, have been leaders in adopting social media for communications, fund development and advocacy,” says Merith Weisman, Sonoma State University community engagement and social media coordinator. “In fact, it was a study of how our nonprofit community partners perceived the Sonoma State University Center for Community Engagement that recommended we get more engaged with social media.” 
Social media has been a great equalizer for some nonprofits as it serves to bridge the communication gap that often troubles smaller organizations compared with their larger, national counterparts. Although a social media campaign still requires resources, a good strategy can shine in a nimble, rapid-response environment. That responsiveness can be a tremendous advantage for smaller organizations.


“Perhaps many social media early adopters in the nonprofit sector were attracted to the 'freeness” of these tools,” says Weisman, “but many now understand both that these tools aren't free and that the unprecedented opportunity to listen to others that social media provides is invaluable. It’s hard to overestimate the value of conversations among clients, funders, volunteers, advocates, competitors and potential collaborators for community and collaboration building.”
So how does an organization steeped in tradition or low on resources foster innovation? It will take time, but it may not be as difficult as you think.

Building a culture of innovation

There’s no magic bullet when it comes to innovation. Any organization, no matter the mission or the budget, can create a culture of innovation by incorporating a few simple steps.
First, tap into industry thought leaders like SSU’s Weisman or Beth Kanter (, or organizations like Ceres or Social Media for Nonprofits. These experts continue to innovate and encourage change.
Second, take the time to look at what’s happening outside your community. There could be opportunities to model ideas, as Ceres has done. Take a few minutes each day to skim through trade publications and websites like or and find articles that pique your interest. Bookmark these pages and read through them when you have time to digest the concepts.
Third, include a creative innovation working group in your 2014 strategy. This should be a group of your most creative thinkers: board members, donors and volunteers. Give them room to generate plenty of ideas—they’re almost guaranteed to produce a few gems.
It’s an exciting time in the nonprofit industry as organizations innovate to respond to the ever-growing demand for services. There’s an energetic revolution in service delivery taking place. Bring that energy to your organization and be prepared to inspire your community and play a larger role fostering change for good.
Lomesh Shah is founder of NonProfitEasy, an integrated CRM solution for small to mid-sized nonprofits. You can reach him at Gretchen Barry is a marketing and communications advisor for NonProfitEasy. You can reach her at



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