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2 Keys for Nonprofit Innovation

Published by Brady Josephson

As a Canadian, I’m required to love hockey, maple syrup, and Ryan Gosling so when he was cast in Blade Runner 2049, I thought I’d go back and watch the original with Harrison Ford to ‘complete the canon’. So I did. And it sucked.

It may have been transformative and cutting edge at the time but I found it slow, overly simplistic, and just plain weird. One thing that stood out was that it was set in 2019. As in next year. And it was full on into sentient robots, alien worlds, and flying cars. And this got me thinking: why do we not have flying cars by now? Why do we want to predict the future (and keep guessing when flying cars will exist)? And, perhaps most importantly, why are we so bad at predicting the future?

I think there’s an innate curiosity in all of us where we want to know the unknown so the future fascinates us but more practically if we can ‘know’ the future, then we can make better decisions today. And when it comes to fundraising and philanthropy, it sure would be useful to able to predict the future right now.

Charitable giving in the US has been flat as a percentage of GDP for the past 50 years and in Canada, we are seeing declining amounts and rates of donors. So what we — fundraisers and nonprofit marketers — have been doing isn’t working very well, if at all, so there is a need for nonprofit innovation and to do things differently in the future if we want to grow generosity and giving.

Add in the fact that a crap ton of money (official unit of measurement) will be handed down to those darn Millennials and being able to predict the future of fundraising and giving sure would be handy, wouldn’t it?

So why are we so bad at it? And can we approach the future in a better way?

Well, one of the main reasons we are bad at predicting the future is that we tend to focus on the things that will be different in the future, often what will be most radically different, instead of what will be the same. But, particularly for organizations and especially for your fundraising, the question shouldn’t be ‘what will be different in the future?’ but rather ‘what will be the same in the future?’.

Because those are the areas you can invest in, innovate on, and build a business, team, and strategies around.

This is the approach Jeff Bezos has taken to help build the ‘company-that-makes-Christmas-and-life-possible’, also known as Amazon:

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. … [I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

Think about that quote as it relates to giving and your fundraising. 10 years from now, can you imagine donors saying things like:

  • ‘I sure wish you sent me more mail’ or
  • ‘I like your website but wish it was a bit more complicated to navigate’ or
  • ‘I’d like to have less personal and relevant communications from you’.

No way.

So when I look 10 years out I see online fundraising as one of those areas that will stay the same and grow in importance. And that’s a big reason why I’m working for NextAfter.

We’re trying to unleash the most generous generation in history and we’re banking on the fact that to accomplish that, we, and nonprofits, need to invest in digital strategies.

And that’s the first key to innovation:

Don’t worry about the things that will be different, invest in the areas that you know will be the same.

Investment in stable areas over time is what leads to greater efficiency as Yammer CTO and co-founder, Adam Pisoni points out,

Efficiency is great if you can plan for the long-term, if you know what you’re going to do for a long period of time, you can really get into the nuts and bolts of how to do it efficiently.

Now I’m confident that online fundraising and digital strategies are only going to grow in importance over the next 2, 5, and 10 years. I’m also confident that donors aren’t going to want their online giving experience to be less personal, not as trustworthy, or harder to complete.

But I’m less confident when it comes to what personalization will look like in 5 years. Or how to best build trust with younger donors. Or how online transactions can be made even easier. I have some guesses (automation, peer reviews, and mobile payments) but they are just guesses. And I wouldn’t feel great investing significant resources in any one of those areas.

So don’t invest significant resources in any of those areas. Because if you do and try to become efficient when the future is unknown and unpredictable you could essentially end up getting better at being bad (and this is one of the many issues when too much focus is on efficiency for nonprofits).

Adam Pisoni puts it this way,

The minute the future becomes unpredictable, efficiency can become your enemy.

This is also an extrapolation of the concept in the book Nail It Then Scale It: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Creating and Managing Breakthrough Innovation where you can’t scale (grow and invest in) something you haven’t nailed (figured out what works). So the skill set required here isn’t knowing the future but rather being able to figure out works.

And this is the second key to innovation:

Don’t stress about the unknowns, acknowledge what you don’t know and be responsive to figure them out.

This is where optimization comes in.

It’s a repeatable process to go about figuring out how to best use the resources at your disposal at a moment in time. And this is what allows you to then respond to those unknowns, figure them out, and then, once you have a better sense of the solution, invest in those solutions.

This is another reason why I’m at NextAfter. We often say “we’re not expert fundraisers, just expert optimizers”. We don’t have all the answers but we know how to go about getting the answers. And we’re trying to teach, train, and empower marketers and fundraisers (you!) with the tools, ideas, and resources needed to become an expert optimizer and able to figure out the unknown and unpredictable.


There is a need for nonprofit innovation in the world of philanthropy and, most likely, at your organization. To do so well, and wisely, you need to ask yourself not what will be different but what will be the same and invest in those areas. And for those areas where you don’t know, acknowledge that you don’t know and take a responsive approach to optimization to get the answers that you need when you need them.

If you’re looking for more on nonprofit innovation, check out Tim’s post The Grand Challenge of Nonprofit Innovation.

Published by Brady Josephson

Brady Josephson is Managing Director of the NextAfter Institute.