Nonprofits are fighting for their survival amid ongoing crises. Communities of color continue to cry out in pain as long-standing inequities rooted in dehumanization and systemic racism have worsened. And, as the first wave of COVID-19 gathered force, it exacted a disproportionate toll—from higher fatality rates to wider learning losses to deeper economic instability—on vulnerable populations. In this time of greatest need, we’ve heard from many leaders who are exhausted from deploying stop-gap measures: slashing budgets, shifting services online, and doing whatever else it takes to help their communities and protect their organizations’ futures. And the view ahead remains challenging: there is a world of uncertainty which they’ll need to adapt to—and a world of increased need for which their missions are ever more relevant.In this crisis, the creativity and resourcefulness of the social sector has been astounding. Organizations rapidly moved beyond what they’ve always done and explored new ways of working. They’ve responded to the crisis and pursued rapid innovation—a break from practice, large or small, that solves a problem and leads to significant social impact—to create novel solutions in solidarity for and support of marginalized communities.

Nonprofits—and especially those most proximate to communities of color—have a long history of creating novel solutions, and the speed with which they’ve moved to respond to communities in crisis, uncertain funding, or social distancing has been awe-inspiring. Still, necessary shifts to virtual platforms and creative adaptation to new crises may not be enough to navigate away from an inequitable past and toward an uncertain future. The spark of new ideas, with unequivocal support from donors, boards, and government, will need to lead to sustained and ongoing innovation.

How can nonprofits continue to innovate and go further than they already have?

Through conversations with nonprofit leaders, we offer four principles we heard as they’ve navigated the path forward—not only in the ongoing waves of the pandemic, but also beyond it.

  • Keep going. COVID-19 has challenged nonprofit leaders to push past what they have done before and explore different ways of working.
  • To imagine a different future, re-examine fundamental assumptions. One of the chief challenges for nonprofits is to imagine the unfolding future and land themselves in it. No one can predict what’s coming, but this much is clear: it will be new, and we cannot return to the inequity of “normal."
  • Focus on those with the greatest needs. Would-be innovators who “think big” run the risk of quickly leaving marginalized communities behind. If anything, it may be necessary to reverse the sequencing—instead of simply aiming for scale, begin with the most vulnerable.
  • Take evolutionary steps to achieve a revolutionary goal. A well-honed process for continuous, everyday innovation is fairly straightforward: Start small. Generate promising ideas. Then build minimally viable prototypes to test, learn, and gauge which idea has the highest potential to deliver outsize social impact.

Read the full article about nonprofit innovation by Nithin Iyengar and Reilly Kiernan at The Bridgespan Group.