PMA Consulting, LLC

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Why I Love and Hate the Word “Innovation”

Josh Jacobson Managing Director

Josh Jacobson
Managing Director



  1. A new idea, product or method
  2. New and better ways of doing things


It started off innocently enough – “You know what, guys? We should test our collected learning from clients through a study of some sort.  Maybe we could look at trends affecting Mecklenburg County nonprofits, and how they are responding to challenges!”  But what began as a desire to advance our firm’s thought leadership and inform our work with clients became something much more profound, but also perhaps just as misunderstood.

Fast forward many months later, roughly halfway through presenting the findings from our 2012 research on innovation at a breakout session at the North Carolina Philanthropy Conference, when a hand is raised by an audience member to make a comment:

“I thought this session was about innovation. What you are presenting is best practices, not innovation. I thought I was going to get some tips for bringing innovation back to my office.”

It was like a shot to the heart, and what any speaker loathes to hear.  But such is the challenge of the word “innovation” – it means different things to different people.


smallstock-Ecoloy-illustration-Lamp-bulb--38552875In 2012, PMA launched a new research project focusing on the nonprofit sector in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Through this study, PMA examined the state of nonprofits in this region, discovering key trends and findings pertaining to nonprofit governance, staffing, financial management and fundraising practices.

PMA’s objective was to test theories derived from work with nearly 100 nonprofits since 2009, representing a period of difficultly and frugality for many nonprofit organizations throughout the Charlotte region. Through this study, PMA explored how the nonprofits survived the downturn, what is working, and how to measure and prioritize activities.

The result of this study was published in PMA’s blog throughout early 2013 (the Innovation Series), and was well received throughout the sector. However, a recurring theme of feedback on the firm’s study was how little innovation (as classically defined) was covered in the firm’s findings.  The study suggested a heightened focus on collaboration, the critical importance of data and rethinking ROI on engagement efforts – hardly groundbreaking and new “innovations.” Had PMA made a faux pas in calling it a study of “innovation?” Or was it a challenge to Mecklenburg County nonprofits (and nonprofits throughout the Carolinas) to examine some pretty basic operations? Think about these bullet points on innovation.

  • Innovation does not always mean “something with computers.”
    As defined at the beginning of this post, innovation means a “new and better way of doing things.”  Throughout its research, PMA found that new ways of doing things don’t always mean radical departures into new territory.  In fact, industry-wide best practices had not been implemented in many local nonprofits, and as such, represented better ways of doing things as the sector adjusted to the downturn.  For example, nonprofits were only just now focusing on donor “churn rate,” which has been an industry best practice for years.  Board members were being handed “position descriptions,” something that should have happened years ago.  The “innovation” for so many nonprofits was simply to embrace operational excellence like never before.
  • Innovation can come from some strange places.
    Perhaps it isn’t surprising that a participant in the break-out session was looking for innovative ideas to bring back to the office.  But innovation is unlikely to be handed to you in a gift-wrapped package.  Finding new ways of doing things that foster efficiency and effectiveness are largely organization-specific.  How does your organization explore new ways of doing things?  How are the support staff, volunteers and even recipients of services engaged to inform the way your organization operates?  The fact is, innovative ideas that make the most sense for your organization are less likely to be found in conference break-out sessions, and are more likely suggestions that your own stakeholders can make… if you think to ask them.
  • A culture of innovation is as much about the journey as the outcomes.
    Just about every organization these days is trying to do more with less.  As highlighted in PMA’s Keys to Organizational Success, innovation is only as good as the journey you take to discover it.  Securing buy-in from those who are most critical to ensuring success often means embracing a culture of innovation, where diverse voices are sought to co-create new methods of program service delivery, fund development, marketing and partnering.

In the end, would it have been easier to avoid the term “innovation” altogether in PMA’s 2012 study? Sure. But the dialogue it inspired was important, and encouraged the firm to continue bringing its message of embracing “established ways that are new to you” to clients in 2013 and beyond.