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The Innovation Trap

By Sarah Sims

The single most common question asked at conferences, in consulting situations, or any professional development setting is “what are the new and innovative things donor relations shops are doing these days?”. We have all asked this question, I know I certainly have in my own career. But when professionals ask this repeatedly, with singular focus on the newest and sexiest “thing” they can do, we lose sight of what really constitutes innovation. Innovation isn’t a one-off idea, or short-term project or initiative until the next best thing comes along.

Innovation results from our desire and our actions to continually make things better. To improve upon what we already have, to add dimension and quality, to streamline and add efficiencies…this is where innovation is born.

There will always be something that another organization is doing that we would like to emulate, and donor relations professionals are typically very open about sharing ideas, templates, plans, and examples. But before we ask for additional resources, or invest existing budget and personnel hours, we should be asking ourselves if there is something we are already doing that we could be doing better/faster/more strategically.

When I came to the University of Florida, there were many exciting new initiatives and programs we wanted to implement. We all had a million ideas and a library of exemplary samples we wanted to emulate. But I also knew that our annual endowment reporting process was broken. Before I could take on more programs and incorporate top-notch ideas into the work, I had to fix the existing programs first. And that endowment reporting program revamp has proven to be one of the most innovative moments of my 15+ year in donor relations. Out of that process, we created a comprehensive tiered approach, designed and implemented a robust reporting portal that not only collects utilization narratives from across campus, but automatically collates and prints 3,500+ custom reports each year, and reduced the overall reporting process from six months down to three months.

So now, with my additional three months of time and freed up budgetary and personnel resources, I am going to tackle the next big things on my list. That may be improving an existing program that has become stagnant (like a recognition society), or implementing something brand new like personalized videos for our planned giving donors.

The point is, don’t expect innovation to be handed to you. Don’t fall into the trap that everything you are doing is in good shape and you need to crowdsource new ideas to impress your leadership. If you want to be seen as a thought-leader, an innovator or ideator, look holistically at your work and determine where you can incorporate change or improvement in order to impart maximum impact (with special focus on incorporating technology and developing metrics where possible). I guarantee your leadership and peers will look highly upon your ability to not only generate new ideas, but to innovate and maximize in the work that is already at hand.

This post was written by Sarah Sims. Sarah is a consultant and educator with the DRG Group, and serves as the Executive Director of Donor Relations at the University of Florida. Sarah is a leader in the donor relations field with more than 15 years’ experience. Drawing from her strengths in strategy and execution, Sarah is always looking for ways to turn challenges into opportunities.


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