Fostering Innovation in Nonprofit Leadership With Labs and Incubators
As we know, nonprofits are essential for society. But now more than ever, it’s vital for nonprofits to remain ahead of the curve at a time when generative AI captured the imaginations of the public. It’s now possible for any fundraiser to do a few keystrokes and have artificial intelligence write thousands of custom emails for a campaign individualized with a specific message that resonates with a donor prospect and the amount where they’re most likely to give.
It might all seem overwhelming, but there's help. A top idea many nonprofits don't know exists or take advantage of is incubators or innovation labs. These entities exist specifically to support organizations, such as nonprofits, in the philanthropic space. Within these incubators and labs, there's a hive of activity. For instance, with the rise of artificial intelligence, these organizations support nonprofits by leveraging technology and using tech to create new solutions and programs.
Understanding Innovation Labs and Incubators
The idea of incubators and innovation labs has been around for a long time. Essentially, these organizations are dedicated to creating spaces for nonprofits to experiment, learn, collaborate and try new things. Again, when there's a tremendous change that isn't stopping but only accelerating, nonprofit leaders need to know how to harness the new technologies and ideas or risk becoming irrelevant as social enterprises and impact investment groups expand into the philanthropic space with more market share.
Moreover, these incubators and labs offer nonprofits other resources that could allow savvy leaders to scale their organizations to make a much more significant impact in their communities as we deal with massive changes in education, climate change, healthcare, etc. So, aside from learning new technologies, depending on the lab or incubator, nonprofit leaders could find opportunities for financial support (especially startup nonprofits), mentorship and networking.
The Benefits of Innovation Labs for Nonprofits
Depending on the lab your nonprofit chooses, here are some key benefits your organization can expect.
1. Encouraging Creativity and Risk-Taking
For starters, innovation labs offer an excellent professional space with experts who support nonprofit leaders and boards to think outside of the box — or even break the proverbial box. Think about how essential it is today for nonprofit leaders to ensure their cultures are creative, can problem-solve and take risks. Let's face it, the nonprofit sector isn't known for unconventional thinking, but now's the time for exceptional creativity.
2. Testing Ground for New Ideas
The only way to grow a successful nonprofit is to test, test and test. When you participate in an incubator or lab, you can test your ideas because the lab supports you with funds, expertise, methodologies or technologies. As a result, this testing ground allows you to get feedback to see what works and what doesn't to improve programs before scaling and expanding.
3. Collaboration and Cross-Sector Partnerships
One of the coolest things about innovation labs is that some offer nonprofits the opportunity to partner with private companies and academia. Why is that a benefit? Because nonprofits can benefit from the cross-pollination of ideas. Moreover, with for-profit companies, there is an opportunity to access in-kind or even funding.
4. Learning From Failure
Finally, testing is vital for nonprofits that participate in incubators or innovation labs — but so is a failure. The fact is that nonprofits aren't inclined to take risks. However, you have permission to fail with the support of labs and incubators. Further, these organizations provide the support to communicate with their board members and donors about any failures, so it's positioned well and educates them on the idea of failure.
Notable Examples of Nonprofit Innovation Labs and Incubators
To get you started, here is a list of some of the leading innovation labs and incubators.
Blue Ridge Labs @ Robinhood. Based in New York City, Blue Ridge Labs fights poverty and improves people's lives in the city. The organization has raised more than $97 million to support tech-driven solutions for nonprofits. It also offers fellowships and social venture capital for startup organizations helping to end poverty in New York City, too.
Partnership Fund for New York City. Also based in New York City, Partnership Fund operates an innovation lab to support organizations looking to scale. The lab provides funding, collaborations and other resources to targeted healthcare, education and economic development sectors. During the past 10 years, it has supported New York-based for-profit and nonprofit organizations to the tune of $50 million.
Okta for Good Innovation Lab. This innovation lab leverages emerging technology to support missions and impact social change. Moreover, Okta has supported the expertise, mentorship and funding for the organizations with which it works. Some partner organizations include Mercy Corps, Tech Matters and TechnoServe.
Fast Forward. If you’re a startup, then Fast Forward may be your right partner as it is an accelerator program. It provides $25,000 grants, educates organizations it supports, and provides networking and collaboration opportunities. These types of programs exist to leverage the power of technology to scale solutions and accelerate growth.
ReFED. This is another accelerator program that supports organizations looking to provide sustainable solutions to combat food waste. ReFED focuses on innovative startup nonprofits that receive funding, support and expertise, and networking opportunities in the food industry to promote solutions that minimize and eliminate food waste.
As you can see, innovation labs and incubators offer valuable benefits to organizations. At a time when it's vital to innovate, test and color outside of the lines, these entities provide your organization a chance to gain a competitive advantage for growth and greater impact. Aside from these labs and incubators, you can find others in your area. Simply search nonprofit innovation labs, incubators and accelerator programs to support your efforts to face the complex issues we face in the 2020s.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Wayne Elsey is the founder and CEO of Elsey Enterprises. Among his various independent brands, he is also the founder and CEO of Funds2Orgs, a social enterprise that helps nonprofits, schools, churches, civic groups, individuals and others raise funds, while helping to support micro-enterprise (small business) opportunities in developing nations and the environment.
You can learn more about Wayne and obtain free resources, including his books on his blog, Not Your Father’s Charity.