Harnessing Good Thoughts: Innovation Management as a Volunteer Opportunity

innovation management as volunteer opportunityTHE DISHARMONIUS GOOD INTENTIONS OF STAKEHOLDERS

Every nonprofit has them, mountains of well-meaning good ideas from passionate supporters, true believers, and entitled stakeholders.

There’s just so darn many of them. Ideas AND supporters. Ignoring one mean can means losing the other (people leave when they feel they aren’t being listened to), but nonprofits just don’t have the time to give every idea the consideration it deserves. Heck, they can’t even slow down long enough to sort things into buckets of yes, no, and maybe later. There’s just too much to do, too many volunteers to manage…

…hey, waitaminnut!

What if you could harness your volunteers to help you sort all the good ideas? Even better, to HAVE good ideas for you?!? What if it wasn’t any harder than managing any other volunteer opportunity? Sure, someone would need to set it up properly, plan it, provide tools, training, and guidance for success, but you do that all the time already. You know how to do that. You have plans and resources and more online guides for that than you can count.

It’s just changing the goal a little, rotating the volunteer dial from “deliver service” to “improve processes” or even “help set strategic priority.” Crazy? Nope, it’s just common sense.


People want to help. They want to buy in. They want to feel like they belong. That they matter. Some are content to show up on a “volunteer day,” but the best want to do more. They have ideas and skills and experience they want to share. They see a way to deliver service more efficiently or be better stewards of resources or stronger allies to your community. They have GREAT ideas. And you know that if you find the best ideas and implement them, not only will it make you stronger as an organization, it will gain you a committed partner. Nothing strengthens the ties that bind like shared success. You want people to buy in like that. Lots of people. Funding follows that kind of commitment.

It’s about harnessing random good intentions and focusing them into collective action in support of a common cause. You set clear goals, provide the right tools and direction, check in and offer guidance every so often, and then celebrate shared success.

You could, in effect, use familiar processes to create volunteer opportunities at a strategic level; you just might need a new tool or two.

This is where managed collaborative innovation comes in. You can partner with supporters in answering difficult questions and meeting tough challenges much the same way you would in rebuilding a community, delivering a hundred meals, or reading a thousand books. With clear goals, a well-defined process, and a lot of teamwork. Some simple examples:

  • Ask your volunteers to develop or improve the training program for new volunteers.
  • Ask your stakeholders to co-create priorities for the upcoming year (or more).
  • Ask local leaders to draft new ways that your services could better serve their communities.
  • Ask your most vocal advocates to present new ideas for fundraising.

Done well, it accomplishes three things at once: 1) harnesses the otherwise wasted resource of good ideas from passionate audiences 2) deepens engagement with those audiences through a sense of shared success, and 3) provides a guiding framework that keeps those ideas firmly aligned with the mission and vision of your ongoing work.

Like any other volunteer opportunity, success is going to depend on how well you set it up, manage it, and engage with your volunteers. It’s not necessarily easy, but it is simple. Done thoughtfully and carefully, it makes good use of a previously untapped self-renewing resource. With clearly stated goals and constraints, well-crafted questions, effective community engagement, user-friendly tools for ideation and collaboration, and transparent evaluation and reporting processes, you can turn the smart ideas of your most passionate supporters into plans ready for collective action.

Nonprofits are among the most resourceful organizations at finding new ways to access previously untapped potential in support of a common cause. Solutions like IdeaScale can provide the tools necessary to take this potential and refine it into both useful, actionable innovation and an increased sense of engagement, inclusion, and commitment.

You already know how to engage a community of volunteer doers, take the next step and learn how to engage a community of volunteer thinkers.

This blog is a guest post by Tim Parsons, COO of 5:00 Films & Media

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