Where Good Ideas Go to Die (And How to Rescue Them!)


The nonprofit world is full of big challenges like ending hunger, slowing climate change, and healing trauma, as well as much smaller but nonetheless compelling challenges such as balancing an organization’s budget in the face of a weak economy or effectively engaging a volunteer board of directors. Nonprofits are also full of good people who are constantly thinking up ways to address these challenges, large and small. Yet all too often good ideas fail to see daylight.

I have rarely met anyone in the sector, board or staff, who didn’t have both strong opinions about the challenges facing his or her organization and at least an inkling of how to address them. Sometimes those ideas are shouted out only to fall on deaf ears, while other times they go unexpressed, except in muttering complaints to coworkers after hours. Sometimes, they are presented, debated, and decided on, but still not implemented. Why is that?

In my experience working with the boards, CEOs, and staffs of countless nonprofits over many years, I have come to believe that many organizations have a well-developed idea-killing apparatus. The execution method varies, but usually falls into one of these categories:

1. The CEO’s In-box

Nonprofit CEOs are beset by demands on their time and, as we have been told for ages, urgent items tend to crowd out important matters on their calendars. But the primary reason CEOs are unintentional idea-killers is that they are too close to the problem, have grappled with it for too long, and so may come to see it in a self-limiting way. Their expertise, skill, and deep focus may narrow their view of options to the point of eliminating anything that might actually work. After all, if their usual ways of dealing with challenges were working in a given situation, the issue already would have been addressed.

2. The Board’s Agenda

Nonprofit boards are strange creatures indeed. They meet for as little as a couple hours as few as four times a year, and sometimes only by phone. They work from mostly dull and often impenetrable reports prepared by staff (I know of an organization whose board books exceed 1,000 pages), they are usually not technically versed in the areas in which the nonprofit works, and they rarely set foot on the premises during business hours. Nonetheless, they may be asked to decide some of the most momentous issues coming before the organization. Is it any wonder they tend to be conservative decision-makers?

3. The Management Team’s To Do List

Nonprofit management teams are generally task-focused work groups whose meetings alternate between the two poles of Knights-of-the-Round-Table check-ins and blue sky visioning sessions. Both of these roles are appropriate and necessary but, like the CEO’s focus and the board’s distance from the action, the management team’s structure and multiplicity of roles can inhibit consideration of novel approaches to the challenges the group faces. They may also suffer from an “I-won’t-meddle-in-your-area-if-you-don’t-meddle-in-mine” mindset resulting from a hub-and-spoke relationship of each senior manager with the CEO (but that’s a topic for another post).

Here are some lifesaving suggestions I have seen work wonders in the effort to keep new ideas alive. Most seem to be effective across all of the would-be idea graveyards.

  • Approach sticky problems obliquely; define the challenge in novel terms to get a novel answer. If you are constantly worrying over a revenue shortfall caused by a government cutback, try defining the challenge in political terms or as a business model challenge, instead.
  • Ask two (or more) pairs of managers (or board members, or board members paired with managers) to go off and seek solutions that have not been tried. Set it up as a competition with a token (often humorous) prize for the winner.
  • Ask someone who is far away from the challenge to work on it. Get the HR director to look at why no one uses the new knowledge management system; ask the CFO to get to the bottom of the programmatic conundrum of why client numbers are dropping off. Don’t charge these “outsiders” with solving the problem, per se, but with providing a novel insight into it.
  • Don’t let idea-killers such as “We tried that before,” “That will never work,” or “We don’t want to copy a competitor,” enter your vocabulary. Banish those and similar phrases and remind people who use them to stop.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of individual problem-solving. Recent research has shown that group brainstorming is generally not as effective as individual efforts which are then shared. Debate is also better than brainstorming at producing good ideas. Foster debate; limit brainstorming.
  • Appoint an “Idea Czar” from outside the senior management ranks. This person becomes a human suggestion box, an ombudsman for creativity. Anyone with a novel idea that might answer a current challenge is invited to share it with the Idea Czar, who periodically reports on what he or she has learned at management team or board meetings. Then use those reports to dive deeply into a specific question that piques the particular group’s interest or that the CEO would really like the board’s or management team’s best thinking on.

Talk back: What methods do you use to give ideas a fighting chance and keep problem-solving alive in your organization?

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