Is Imagination a Luxury for Nonprofits?
Once, for a fleeting six months, I worked for an innovation team that was housed within a corporate, no man’s land. Said space was an abandoned floor of an office building still awaiting its fate of being renovated and rented out. With its stained ceiling tiles, mottled carpet and mismatched reject furniture, it might have been unsuitable for everybody else, but it suited a maverick innovation team just fine.
The empty offices — one of them sporting an assortment of Lego bricks to prompt playfulness — and yawning common spaces, seemed an invitation to break away from the expected, to practice the out-of-the-box thinking that is the prime responsibility of innovation teams.
In the years since then, and now stewarding a creativity and innovation practice, I’ve come to realize that this abandoned yet fertile space was a handy metaphor for the space for imagination that so many in the nonprofit sector need, and so lamentably lack. The daily grind for so many nonprofits, including the perpetual scramble for donations, being short on staff and volunteers, and increasing demand for services can be detrimental to basic well-being, let alone creativity and the imagination that fuels it.
Here’s the irony — with the exception of those in creative industries, nonprofit staff need their imaginations, arguably more than anybody else. Nonprofit professionals tackle some of the thorniest and ever-metamorphosizing problems on the planet֫ — poverty, hunger, homelessness, environmental justice, etc. — problems that defy technical solutions, that are systemic and often very context-dependent. If the sector is to go beyond Band-Aid solutions, nonprofits need ample doses of creativity and innovation for finding new solutions.
No treatise on dysfunctions in the nonprofit sector would be complete without an examination of philanthropy’s role within it. Indeed, philanthropy has a major role to play by making available more flexible funding for operational and organizational development purposes.
The State of the Sector
Recently, a study of more than 22,000 arts and cultural nonprofits found that they need to spend about a third of their budgets on overhead to thrive. While there were limits on the degree to which spending on overhead contributed to effectiveness, the study clearly showed that spending too little on overhead, a rule of thumb long revered as the mark of effective charities, makes them less effective.
The Christmas morning effect of billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott’s unrestricted gifts to nonprofits has also been studied, with the curiosity of whether a lottery effect would be found. Researchers have found no such effect and found instead that the funds were spent on a mix of programmatic and core organizational needs, which, in the case of the latter, had usually been difficult to fund prior to the donation.
Your average nonprofit may find this to be preaching to the choir; a message better directed at donors. Still, nonprofits should take to heart that asking for larger percentages of money for overhead isn’t a mark of profligacy but of a responsible and evidence-based attitude toward increasing impact.
It takes money to staff up adequately enough to ease the workloads of existing staff; to fund the workshops and retreats that provide the literal and metaphorical time and space to imagine, to innovate. It takes money to pilot the ideas that come out of such exercises, and to research and report on impact. All these activities greatly increase the odds of an organizations’ effectiveness, but they require flexible funds that should be requested without shame.
What happens in the absence of such revenues? A poll of global health experts shows a massive disparity between the most and the least effective nonprofits, finding in the case of the latter, many actually cause harm. Given the American public’s falling trust levels in nonprofits, such ineffectiveness and/or harmfulness can further erode the public’s trust and violate the very ideas of good that nonprofits aspire to.
Finding the Space for Imagination
Nonprofits with multiple funding sources, or with flexible donors, may have more wiggle room to allocate funding for learning and imagination, particularly when these are built into program budgets. But independent of funding, there are other things that leaders of nonprofits can do to help provide staff with the time and space to imagine.
Given the aforementioned pressures of nonprofit life, imagination can indeed seem like a luxury, or at minimum an abstract activity of questionable priority. But it’s important to understand that an inordinate focus on the visible signs of busyness, of relentless productivity, will not produce high-quality ideas. In fact, as most people can attest, the best ideas often come unbidden, when one’s mind is wondering or engaged in something not task-oriented. The human brain needs time to percolate, to sit on problems and allow the imagination to put out its tendrils.
How can imagination be nurtured in the workplace, which, for most of us, still bears the imprint of the Industrial Revolution’s factory-style notions of productivity?
It starts with an organizational culture that values imagination and creativity as an important aspect of productivity. Some workplaces implement no meeting Fridays (or Mondays, or whatever day makes sense) to allow the breathing room for staff to take part in thought work. Sometimes a touch of whimsy can help; for example, one company brightened the workplace with balloons staff attached to their desks to signify new ideas they were trying out.
And most importantly, boards and executive search committees should take note that creativity is important in leadership. For example, a global study of 1,500 CEOs conducted by IBM famously found that CEOs cited creativity as the most important attribute of leadership. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those that chose creativity as one of three top leadership traits were up to 20% more likely to pursue innovation through changes in business models.
While drafting this article, a digest arrived in my inbox with the subject line, “Don’t just do something — sit there!” Citing admonitions from both scholars and spiritual traditions, the message was clear: Sometimes in allowing the mind to stand still, we make the greatest leaps.
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.
Malaika Cheney-Coker is the founder and principal of Ignited Word, a consulting firm dedicated to helping nonprofits increase their impact through creativity. She delights in the kaleidoscope of ideas that is creativity as well as the analytic thinking and research that partner with those ideas for effective social change. With experience in both the U.S. and international nonprofit arena, she works across a range of subject matter areas, including evaluation and organizational learning, thought leadership, coalition building, and organizational creativity.