Fostering new ideas is vital for charities, but
figuring out how is tricky. To help readers share
what works, The Chronicle is starting Mission: Innovation, a blog about cultivating bold, new approaches in the nonprofit world. Among the topics:
n The design company IDEO is now applying
approaches used elsewhere to fight poverty.
n A project room gets ideas off employees’ computers
and out where the rest of the staff can see them,
says Laura Weiss (left) of the Taproot Foundation.
Innovation Lab Program Includes a Retreat
to Help Participants Plow Through Roadblocks
the office will be able to strike
out on its own as a separate organization.
“It’s about building local ca-
pacity,” says Ms. Zabel. “That’s
really our role, as opposed to
a huge national organization
with satellite chapters in 20
Springboard’s staff is highly
collaborative, so going through
such an important process
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without the entire staff was
hard, says Ms. Zabel. But at the
same time, she says, “having
that group of people who were
primarily outside of the daily
work of the organization helped
us bring that conversation to a
higher level about the future of
the organization and allowed it
to really be strategic.”
‘A Caldron for Ideas’
After the innovation teams
have been meeting and working
with their consultants for four
months, they go on a retreat in
rural Virginia designed to compress several months’ worth of
meetings into five days.
The retreat idea grew out of
what EmcArts learned running
an earlier program to help orchestras rethink their financial
“There was no lack of creative
ideas about change,” says Mr.
Evans. “It’s just after four or
five months—even with a strong
team and a real champion for
innovation—the new ideas tend-
ed to dribble away into the sand
and lost momentum.”
Getting together for a con-
centrated period of time built a
high level of trust among group
members and “served as a cal-
dron for ideas,” says Kenneth
Foster, executive director of
the Yerba Buena Center for the
Arts, in San Francisco, which
took part in the Innovation Lab
Yerba Buena presents the
work of contemporary visual
and performing artists who are
little known to the public. As a
result, says Mr. Foster, the traditional business model for an
arts venue that focuses on selling tickets—he describes it as
“buy, look, leave”—wasn’t working.
The organization’s goal was to
figure out how to draw visitors
to the organization, where they
could then discover the art.
During the retreat, Yerba
Buena’s innovation team worked
on ideas to promote more inter-
action between staff and visitors
and spur conversation among
Ideas From Employees
Participating in the program
was such a powerful experience
for Yerba Buena that the organization started its own innovation process that encourages
Having a formal
way to consider new
ideas, says one CEO,
has been great
for worker morale.
employees to submit new ideas.
For example, a graphic designer proposed a culinary-arts festival, which the organization
held last year.
Mr. Foster thinks there’s still
room for improvement. On the
one hand, he says, having a formal way for new ideas to be considered has been great for employee morale and has increased
the amount of experimentation
at Yerba Buena. But he says
it tends to become very project-based, a criticism he thinks also
applies to the Innovation Lab.
“What I’m striving for here
is to use that process to take
the work that you’re so busy
with and find a better, more interesting, more creative, more
effective way to do it, to apply
those innovation principles to
your ongoing work” says Mr.
Foster. “Not always, ‘Oh, I have
to come up with some wacky,
new idea that’s going to catch
Advice on How to Avoid Politicking Online
AS THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION SEASON heats up, a Washing- ton advocacy group has outlined how charities can ensure that their Web sites don’t violate Internal Revenue Service
rules banning organizations from politicking.
Recovering Names of Slaves in Virginia
THE Virginia His- torical Society has created an
online database, Unknown No Longer, of
the names of more than
1,800 slaves from its
manuscript collection, a
number the Richmond
organization thinks will
grow to the tens, if not
hundreds, of thousands
The group’s more than
eight million documents,
including wills, estate
records, plantation account books, and letters,
are a rich source for
people interested in Af-rican-American history
and genealogy, but they
are not easily accessible,
says Nelson D. Lankford, vice president for
programs at the Virginia Historical Society.
With a $100,000 grant from Dominion Resources, a power company in the state, and its foundation, the historical society’s archivists have started to comb through the records for the names
of people who were enslaved, along with additional information
in some cases, such as family connections, occupations, and birth
and death dates.
Says Mr. Lankford: “The magic of this is that we’re lifting these
names from dusty documents that are very obscure, people who
toiled in obscurity and left a faint trace in the records, and now
they’re in a database online and anybody anywhere in the world
with an Internet connection can search.”
TO GET THERE: Go to http://unknownnolonger.vahistorical.org.
VIRGINIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The Virginia Historial Society
has created an online database
to gather documents about slaves
for genealogists and historians.
n The Nonprofit Software Development Summit, to be held in
Oakland from November 16 to 18, will bring together programmers and developers who are building or interested in building
software and Web tools for charities and social-justice causes. FOR
MORE INFORMATION: Go to http://aspirationtech.org.
n Nominations will be accepted until October 31 for the Antonio
Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest, an award that
honors software programmers who develop open-source software
that helps nonprofit organizations working for social change. The
prize comes with a $10,000 cash award. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go
n The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has announced a $2-million contest to develop “digital badges” to promote learning and help people demonstrate the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go to http://www.