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Implementing Innovation


Patton McDowell, President

Patton McDowell, President

This month, we’re exploring ways to embrace innovation, including how to think creatively, plan strategically, and perhaps most importantly, implement your innovation.  While leaders of nonprofits are likely to have many new ideas, a major hurdle is typically putting that theory into practice.

I am reminded of my time as Vice Chancellor for University Advancement at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.  Like other public universities, UNC Wilmington had a Board of Trustees that was limited in size and engagement given that a portion were appointed by the state and general assembly.  This limited the university’s ability to attract and engage individuals who might advance the university in deeper ways, including fund development.

The Chancellor gave me a great opportunity to explore the Board of Visitors concept and find a way we might better engage more people.  And while it helped to have the Chancellor on-board, challenges arose in how exactly to design it.  Many ideas existed about what the board might do programmatically, how to provide enough depth to keep the volunteers engaged, and ways to ensure that it not be an administrative burden for the staff.

I credit three factors with implementing this new concept successfully:

  • univers8Comparative Research – We all feel at times that our situation is unique, but the fact is others have likely tackled whatever issue you are facing.  Key for me was connecting with peers and learning pros and cons of different board designs from those who had crossed that bridge before me.
  • Stakeholder Feedback – While it is possible to implement change in a vacuum, a much better way forward is to seek buy-in on a new concept from those who will be critical to its success.  I engaged potential board members in discussion to learn their interests and sought their advice about an ideal board experience.
  • Ongoing Communication – There is a temptation to “go silent” as you work on the details of your implementation plan, but that can leave cold those you most want to engage.  We had to be very attentive to maintaining the communication once we started, recognizing that one positive conversation did not mean 100% buy-in.

In the end, we engaged volunteers centered on a promise of “insider access.”  Rather than create meetings with heavy reporting-out by staff, we identified strategic questions and created discussion so members of the Board of Visitors would feel that their input genuinely mattered. And above all, we made good on our promise of connectivity with the Chancellor.  It goes without saying that your innovation will fail if it does not live up to its central premise.

I’m pleased to say the Board of Visitors remains in place at UNC Wilmington, and continues to cultivate donors and groom volunteer leaders, including trustees.