Social Innovation Management: A Nonprofit Leader's Handbook

Social Innovation Management: A Nonprofit Leader's Handbook

Edwin Goutier

Edwin Goutier

"Social Innovation Management: A Nonprofit Leader’s Handbook"

This post is all about demystifying "social innovation"? Social innovation is all about creating new strategies to meet social needs that are more effective, more efficient, and more just than the status quo. It's not just a buzzword; when leveraged by nonprofits it's a pathway to change.

At LaunchPath we lean heavily on the Lean Startup approach for our corporate clients. So it made sense as we developed our social innovation management platform that we leverage Lean Impact - a concept developed by Ann Mei Chang. In her brilliant book, she introduces frameworks that center around adapting, experimenting, and continually learning to achieve social good. In that sense, social innovation is just as much about the new concept that creates impact as the process to get there.

Why Nonprofits Need to Innovate

Nonprofits are incredible at dreaming big and setting visions that can change the world. But consider how big your organization's mission truly is. If you received a mega philanthropy gift that doubled your budget, would you truly eradicate the problem your organization is designed to solve? The answer for many nonprofits is no.

Here's where innovation becomes our friend. Social innovation helps us operate more effectively, and develop fresh impact models. That transforms what's possible and gets us closer to turning those lofty visions into reality. If you're truly a mission-driven organization, innovation is not a luxury. It's a necessity to deliver on our promise to our stakeholders.

A Practical Guide

Ready to bring innovation to your nonprofit? Here's a friendly guide to get you started:

Start with Strategy: Your organization's mission is your North Star, but how will you navigate the path? Start by aligning your organizational strategy with your innovation aspirations. Understand where you want to go and why, and then build a concrete innovation strategy to take you there. It's about marrying vision with practicality.

Engage Your Community: Social innovation thrives on collaboration. Engage not just your staff but also board members and the very people you serve. Encourage innovation discussions in board meetings, and involve the community in ideation and validation to make sure you're solving problems in ways they will love. Remember, those closest to the problem often hold the key to the solution.

Create Your Innovation Process: Map out the journey. What are the steps from ideation to implementation? Set clear phases, responsibilities, and timelines. It's not about a rigid pathway but a guide that helps your team know where they are going and how they'll get there. Having a clear innovation process also helps you monitor how effectively and efficiently you're getting ideas through the process.

Resource Innovation (3-2-1 model): Resource planning is where many innovation programs break down. I encourage you to consider the 3-2-1 model. Think of it as:

  • 3% of your operating budget as cash, supporting everything from developing ideas to innovation management software to staff upskilling and training.
  • 2% of staff time dedicated to innovation, fostering an environment where everyone contributes.
  • 1 board meeting per year with innovation on the agenda to keep the vision aligned.

This approach ensures a consistent commitment to innovation at all levels.

Find the Right Partners: Nonprofit innovation requires specific expertise. Partner with those who truly understand your context. At LaunchPath, we even help our nonprofit customers receive pro bono support and funding to bring their ideas to life. It's also important that they show a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly if you serve a group that has historically faced marginalization and disinvestment from society. Whether you're choosing consultants, contractors, or innovation management platforms, make sure they resonate with your mission and can navigate the unique challenges of nonprofit innovation.

Don't Fear Failure - Embrace It: Failures are not setbacks; they're lessons learned. Embrace them as opportunities to refine and grow. Cultivate a culture where failure is seen as a stepping stone to success. Remember, every great innovation began with the courage to try, stumble, and rise again.

Each of these steps is essential in building a robust and effective social innovation program for your nonprofit. By adopting these principles, you'll be well on your way to transforming your nonprofit organization and making a meaningful impact in your community. It's all about the right mindset, thoughtful planning, and the willingness to embrace the journey.

And, of course, LaunchPath is here if you need a hand.

Edwin Goutier

Edwin Goutier


Edwin Goutier is the CEO of LaunchPath, an innovation management software company with the world's first nonprofit social innovation platform. Prior to leading LaunchPath, he served as Vice President of Innovation for United Way Worldwide. Edwin is a skilled product manager, innovation consultant, and strategy nerd passionate about the power of local solutions to address community issues. He has been honored as an Okta Nonprofit Technology Fellow, a member of Leadership Alexandria, and led the charge for United Way's inclusion in Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies list.