The Nonprofit Balancing Act: Innovation vs. Productivity

May 1, 2019
6 minutes

Innovation and productivity should be at the top of your list when developing your nonprofit's business strategy.  In many ways, they're at separate ends of a long-winding spectrum; however; they have a strong effect one another. That's why balancing priorities is a must—if the scales tip too far to either side, the results can be disastrous (sort of like putting too much dip on your chip and watching it crumble into oblivion). But, if you're able to find the perfect balance between the two, you'll open up doors to ideas and results you never knew existed.

If you've been feeling like your nonprofit has been lacking in the innovation and/or productivity department, don't fret! We've got a few tips to get you on the right track.


At the heart of innovation is something we all tend to resist—change. Altering or completely replacing something that's been established and introducing new methods, ideas, or products, can be scary. But when it's done correctly, it's downright magical! When things are more efficient, everyone is happier, and results tend to go through the roof.

When it comes to solving difficult problems, nonprofits benefit the most from jumping on the innovation train because they don't typically have the same amount of resources as a for-profit business. Thinking outside of the box to figure out creative ways to reduce overhead costs or increase efficiency are just a few ways nonprofits can use an innovative mindset to thrive.

Leading the charge in innovation is also a great way to attract and retain supporters or volunteers or encourage long-time donors to increase their giving. The surge in innovative technology for nonprofits has soared in the past few years. There was once a time when nonprofit orgs did everything manually, but with innovative fundraising technology that syncs all your donor data online, the game has completely changed. If you're still doing things manually today (no shame if you are), you could move toward a tech-based fundraising strategy or look into implementing a robust donor CRM system to help save time and keep better track of your donors. Using a system that organizes your donor information frees up your team to be more creative and strategic about how to nurture and maximize your most valuable supporter relationships.

Make. Innovation. A priority. Instill it into your core values, and build it into your culture. If you directly involve your employees and volunteers, it allows them to feel like valued members of the team which can increase job satisfaction and retention. Increased satisfaction in employees or volunteers tends to spill into the interactions and relationships they have with your supporters, so it's a win all around!

But, just like any other strategy, there are definitely "whoa, there buddy, too far" moments when it comes to innovation. If you start to lean too heavily towards trying to develop innovative ideas or strategies, you may end up spending too much time "spinning the wheels" and not enough time moving the needle forward. Eventually, you've got to take action! Sometimes, it's hard to truly tell the potential of an idea until you've put it in motion. You can sit around and dream and discuss all day long, but you'll never really know how successful something may or may not be unless you give it a shot!

With any change comes risk, but we all know the sentiment, "no risk, no reward."

To minimize risk, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Start! Never getting started with any of your ideas is the #1 way to fail at innovation.
  • Avoid quitting too early or too late. This may be a moving target when you're first getting started. The best way to handle this is to establish a programmatic way to test out ideas. Have multiple steps in the process. If the idea passes the first step, move onto the second, and so forth. This way, you have multiple opportunities to walk away from an idea if it isn't working out.
  • Don't chase too many bad ideas. Keep track of the ideas you attempt and avoid making the same mistakes more than once.
  • Be open-minded and have fun! You should go into the innovation process with a positive outlook. Try to keep a critical eye open but avoid being overly cynical. Set expectations aside and enjoy the ride!
Colorfully-patterned shaped balanced precariously on top of one another.


Productivity is what moves any effort forward and how you get things done. It's how your team works together to reach your most difficult goals. Nonprofits require exponential amounts of energy and work to keep the lights on, and even more to make a real impact.

A lot of people tend to believe increasing productivity means working faster and harder on everything. But, that isn't necessarily the case. Productivity is more about getting the right things done in the most efficient manner.

One example of working harder, not smarter would be managing your donations using multiple inputs and spreadsheets. A donation management system streamlines all of your data into one place, automates tasks related to donations, and produces valuable reporting that could be used to augment potential donations. Streamlining also saves significant amounts of time, which is arguably your most valuable asset.

If you spend all of your time with your head down, checking tasks off your never-ending checklist, you may end up charging forward in a direction that is actually counterproductive. You'll look up one day and realize you've completely missed opportunities because you were too focused on getting through the pile of work directly in front of you.

Productivity without strategy or direction is really just wasted time camouflaged as valuable work.

Here are a few tips to help you increase productivity the right way:

  • Identify and eliminate unnecessary tasks. Imagine if getting more done actually meant doing less! Well, that may be the case if there are things that your team is doing because "that's how it's always been done." Take a look at the habitual processes you and others on your team adhere to, and remove any wasteful activities.
  • If you run into a problem, solve it. This may mean slowing down or pausing for a moment to think about a solution. If you always skip over little issues that arise in order to just keep going, those problems may escalate and end up becoming much larger than they needed to be.
  • Implement tools to increase efficiency. It can be scary to spend money on something up-front without knowing exactly how much it will help your org. Today, it's easy to do thorough pre-sales research: dig into current customer reviews, ask the sales team to show you a demo, and ask for typical ROI expectations.
  • Keep employee/volunteer well-being top of mind. If you constantly push your staff to do more and more without any return on investment or gratitude, they may become frustrated. Make sure to request and utilize their feedback on what you could do to make their lives a little easier.

Finding the Balance

Properly balancing innovation and productivity may not look like equal parts of each. It may be one substantial, successful idea every so often vs. multiple productive actions every day.

The thing with innovation, just like productivity, is that it needs to be broken down into smaller, more attainable tasks. It requires a constant focus and there should be consistent effort to generate ideas and build toward the "next big thing."

If done right, innovation can be a huge driver to increase productivity. It can help you find shortcuts or smarter ways of doing things and eliminate wasted time or wasteful processes. On the other end of the spectrum, productive effort is what drives any successful idea forward to fruition.

Lastly, remember that both innovation and productivity must be ingrained within the culture of any successful organization, and valued by each individual as a whole in order to produce maximal results. Happy innovating!

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