Leadership

Three Keys to Inspire New Ideas From Staff

By / Jul 14, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The best ideas for your association may come from your employees, but how do you get those ideas launched? Money matters, but so does trust and support.

Your staff has ideas about new services your association can provide for members. Some of those ideas may be very good ones. Problem is, how do you help get those ideas organized and tested?

Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, has recently been interviewing leaders at associations that have launched internal innovation and new business development programs. “We talk about innovation in the association world a lot,” Engel says. “I wondered what was happening. Is anybody doing this well?”

Success requires being able to do something now, “not in 24 months when you can finally make room in the budget.”

The answer is yes, though not without some serious effort. Engel’s research uncovered three common elements of successful programs.

1. It needs its own funding. Success here, Engel says, requires “paying attention to opportunity and then being able to do something about it now, not in 24 months when you can finally make room in the budget.” The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, for instance, maintains a $500,000 fund that’s used annually to invest in new ideas from staff. That includes hiring people dedicated to working on it, as opposed to burdening current staff with new duties.

2. It needs a clearly defined process. A marketing staffer may have a brilliant idea, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she has the financial know-how to put together a business plan to show how it might work. The three associations Engel studied each had a clearly defined process for staff to propose an idea, institutional support for making the proposal, and a clear set of benchmarks for it. “They asking, ‘What criteria do you need to meet in order for this thing to continue passing the test?'” Engel says. “It can be a revenue criteria, but it doesn’t have to be. It has to be clear what standards you’re going to need to keep going.”

3. It needs institutional support. This can be trickier than it seems. Chuck Cochran, CAE, ASHA’s chief staff officer for operations, says the association launched its own program in 1997, during a reorganization. ASHA was in silo-smashing mode, looking to flatten hierarchies, make board activities more transparent, and involve staff in more of the decision making. “The culture change in the organization was huge,” he says.

That kind of hard-won trust and transparency encourages staffers to come forward with their ideas. “I can’t imagine what [the program] would be like if there was distrust,” Cochran says. “People would be afraid they’re going to be zapped.” Cochran estimates that today about 80 percent of the ideas proposed via the fund are successful—that is, proved themselves financially viable after three years and became part of the regular operating budget.

You don’t get to that point, Engel says, without leadership endorsing the concept. “The CEO or executive director has to be supportive of the decision,” she says. “Senior leadership has to say, ‘Yes, this is a good thing.'”

But practically speaking, you also don’t get there without money, and not every association has half a million dollars available to road-test a new idea. Cochran encourages associations to look at the status of their reserves; if they’re in excess of 50 percent of annual unrestricted operating expenses (the typical target for reserves), those excess dollars may provide the start-up costs for a fund.

Because new ideas may require dedicated staff, the amount of money matters. But Engel suggests that even a smaller-scale effort is worthwhile. “It’s a lot easier to find a spare $500,000  set aside for your innovation budget if you’re ASHA than if you’re a $2 million association,” she says. “The raw amount of money doesn’t scale. But the concept—if all you can set aside if $5,000, even if you can get 5 percent time, that part of it is scalable.”

Does your association have a program to encourage staff to propose new ideas, and how do you make it work? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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