Last week, I had the chance to attend the Annual Forum of the Charities Review Council. Along with hundreds of other attendees, I was updated on the work CRC is doing to create a transparent and accountable nonprofit sector, see MCF members Youthprise and Otto Bremer Foundation honored with Community Leadership Awards, and hear from keynote speaker Peter Sims on taking risks and encouraging innovation.
Sims’s talk was based on his book Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. He walked us through examples of how companies like Pixar and celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld got where they are by taking low-risk actions and learning from their failures. Then he engaged us in a discussion of how the nonprofit sector can do the same.
What Can We Afford to Lose?
Sims offered this contrast on the proper mindset for experimentation, and it continues to stick with me a week later.
A manager asks “what can we gain?” from a proposed new course of action, while an entrepreneur asks “what can we afford to lose?”.
Great ideas can produce big results, but they may not be fully realized until many years later, with the immediate benefit seemingly less impressive. That plus the very real possibility that an idea won’t work at all makes it easy to nay-say them.
On the other hand, if you appreciate that your organization can easily afford to have multiple small experiments fail, and that you don’t know which one could go on to be something big, you’ll be much more receptive the next time a new idea comes along.
Bring a Culture of “Little Bets” to Your Organization
Sims and the audience offered a couple of ways that individuals can start to bring a culture of little bets to their organizations.
Budget 5-10% of your time (a few hours a week) to dreaming up and implementing small experiments in your work, and see what happens. When you try something new and it doesn’t work out, don’t shy away from bringing it up at a performance review or staff meeting. Instead, celebrate the effort and share what you learned and what you would do differently next time.
Something for Funders
Another theme of the audience Q&A was that nonprofits will embrace more innovation when they are well capitalized enough to believe they can afford to have an experiment fail. We think that’s something for grantmakers to consider as they decide how to fund the causes they care about.
Join the conversation: Let us know what little bets you’ve taken recently and, successful or not, what you’ve learned from them!
-Chris Oien, MCF web communications associate