Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Powerful Force of a Big Idea

NOBODY CREATED A NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION FROM A SMALL IDEA, PERIOD.  Just think about it:  what museum, artists' cooperative, hospital, school or community garden didn't begin with someone saying "what if?"....and then taking action.  Founders dream dreams and work tirelessly to make them reality.  Those of us who come after founders have dreams, too.  We work tirelessly to take our organizations to the next level by continually trying to raise the impact bar.

Big ideas are critical fuel for the nonprofit engine.  They ignite imaginations, attract people (both as workers and as audiences), connect otherwise free-floating dots, and when they fully advance mission impact, they open pocketbooks.  Yet, why is it that many organizations continue to focus on the narrow, the small bore, their finite piece of nonprofit real estate?  Why do so many organizations continue to silo their staff and volunteers, thus removing the spontaneous opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas?  Why do so many of us remain content with accidental idea-generation rather than making a business of it?  When was the last time you were at a board meeting where 'big ideas' was an agenda item?

Are ideas so abstract and untethered that we struggle to even see a possible way to learn from them?  Do we believe that time spent on idea generation is a luxury, not a necessity?

What so many people fail to understand is that big ideas -- well, any sized ideas, really -- 1) can come from ANYWHERE and 2) are absolutely FREE.  It's what a person or organization chooses to do with that idea that could ultimately take resources, but what and how many resources are also our choices.  

So the very best ideas are ones that can be scaled up or down depending on the size of an organization or the resources available.  Understanding that means you can't close yourself off to any possibility just be saying "we're too small" or "we can't...".

As nonprofit leaders, what we can't do is fear the big (or medium or small) idea.  Nonprofit leaders must be willing to readily engage ideas from across a range of sectors knowing that the potential to adapt and remix them is everywhere.  We don't have to be imaginative or creative to understand this basic fact.

For most of us, opening up to ideas (and generating them) takes a spark and some practice.   Here are some 'ideas' about how to do that:
  • Gather a cross-section of your organization's staff, board members, volunteers  and/or external stakeholders together to create some "what if?" scenarios using your organization's vision and mission as guides.
  • Use visual images, music, or the written word as sparks for generating new ways of looking and thinking about your organization's work.  Did one of your audience members or clients write you a particularly passionate letter/email that could spark a deeper discussion?
  • Take yourself and your staff/board/volunteers out of usual spaces and routines to pave the way for making new or different connections.  What could you learn about your organization from a visit to the local bowling alley or mini golf course?  Would the owner of the business in your community that is known for over-the-top customer service share her insights?
  • Ask your counterparts from across the nonprofit sector to join you in conversations about "what if?", "why not?", and "could we?"
  • Get outside the four walls of your organization (mentally and physically) to learn about what's sparking other organizations.  Make a point of talking with a counterpart at an organization that has sparked your attention.  Spend 30-60 minutes every month doing this.
  • Share what you're discovering with your staff/board/volunteers and encourage them to share what's sparking their imaginations.
  • Make a date with yourself to do some or all of these activities.
How do you generate ideas and turn them into powerful forces for upping your organization's game?

Image:  "Make Big Ideas Happen" from vaughnfender via Flickr