FPC Blog

Coming out with “Out of the Box” Ideas for your Non-Profit


Having as of today been involved in founding and running the Financial Policy Council for four years now, I am often asked how to come out with the most innovative ideas to turn a nonprofit into a truly unique organization.

The answer is simple… It all boils down to how you generate your ideas and then going about executing on them.

After all, coming up with good ideas is not hard. It just takes focus. So how do you acquire this focus?

Here’s some food for thought…

  1. Find a problem you’re obsessed with solving or you’re passionate about improving and delve in it in full force. After all, building a nonprofit is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Life has taught me that the most miserable people I know are those who are obsessed with themselves; the happiest people I know are those who lose themselves in the service of others… So by and large, I have come to realize that if we complain about life, it is because we are thinking only of ourselves. If we are happy it is because we are fulfilled with a cause bigger than us.
  2. Read a lot. This process of thinking about things will build new connections and your brain will start seeing patterns and synthesizing new thoughts around it. On the same note, start writing any ideas you have down. This will force you to organize your thoughts and think more deeply about them. During this process, you will find more ideas are generated as well. Come to think of it deeper, the brain is an interesting thing. As you begin to learn about new ideas, it will start firing neurons around related ideas as you learn to remember these ideas. I think of it as an encoding engine. Many ideas might have similar patterns, and rather than remembering each idea separately, your mind will forget most of the details, but instead will “encode” the differences/similarities of this particular idea to another idea. In fact, it’s almost like none of these ideas are completely unique, but it is the synthesis of thought and ideas that leads you to seemingly “out of the box” new ideas.
  3. Brainstorm extensively. The first and only rule of brainstorming is that there are no bad ideas. You can always strike down an idea and refine your strategies after coming up with several possibilities, so don’t set limitations from the get-go, it’ll ruin the mood. Brainstorming when done right automatically begets more brainstorming, so you want to keep the environment as open as possible. Whether you’re alone or with a group (preferable)…. Some ways to go about it:
    * Give everyone a pad and a writing utensil, present them with the prompt, and give them a limited amount of time (1-2 minutes, pressure works wonders here) to generate as many ideas/solutions as they can, writing each one down on a single post it (no details as to execution of said idea necessary at this point–that’s later). Once time’s up, throw all the post-its on a wall and start sorting them by whatever category system you like. You’ll start noticing that multiple people will often have the same idea, and this should be a sign that these are either a) too easy and not worth it or b) smart. By the way, it’s pretty common for people to have more ideas while in the process of sorting–write those down and throw those up too. By the time you’re done, you should have an awesome, pre-sorted springboard of possibilities to discuss and refine.
    * Think outside the box. Get stupid, gross, impossible, whatever. Then take those ideas, and figure out how to make them work no matter what. You’d be amazed what a group can come up with once they get past the notion that something’s not possible.
    * Engage in a deep multi-faceted dialogue. Why? Because no idea is really completely new – so a solid, unique idea really means combining a range of perspectives into a one coherent one.
  4. Collaborate. I understand the pride behind the origination of ideas. You allow yourself to be that frustrated for that long because you want the recognition as “that guy” or “that girl” who came up with the brilliant new idea. The thing is, that shouldn’t matter. All it is is another obstacle for the birth of ideas. Collaboration provides an extremely powerful tool, another perspective. Discussion and outside perspective can open your eyes to new avenues. Bouncing around ideas with a colleague is a refreshing, encouraging, and exciting process. Don’t think that you have to go it alone when it comes to producing ideas. As long as it gets created, who cares who gets the credit?
  5. Put on someone else’s shoes. When you’re stuck coming up with ideas and have no one to collaborate with, it would serve you well to try adopting someone else’s perspective, and “put yourself in their shoes.” Figuratively. Choose an individual you admire most, and deeply consider how they might approach your particular problem. Really, all you’re doing is attacking your problem from a different mindset, but imagining yourself as a different person makes it easier for your brain to make a change in thinking.
  6. Never censor yourself. Run with crazy permutations in your mind a step or two past where conventional considerations would have eliminated them… they might veer back into practical territory.

After all is said and done, I believe that just about every successful organization is based on an unoriginal idea, beautifully executed.

I will share with you in my next blog how to best execute on ideas.

Stay tuned and in the meantime share your thoughts.