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Designing ideas that succeed

In the era of startup artists and venture capitalists all hunting for the next big thing, there’s growing hunger for new ideas, and increasing support for those with the greatest potential. Nonprofits have always been dynamic social innovators and, of late, a growing number are benefitting from new opportunities to participate in accelerators, launch venture-backed initiatives, and form alternative corporate structures.

GCN has always been a part of promoting, exploring, and experimenting with new constructs, as in our annual IDEAS issue, where we’re excited to highlight dozens of our community’s innovation successes. At the same time, we are piloting a business accelerator for women- and minority-led organizations looking to scale new revenue-generating strategies; we’re leading a third cohort of organizations to re-imagine collaborative work using the Design Thinking method; and we’ve launched Work for Good – our own social enterprise – to connect purpose-driven people and organizations.

So how do we design ideas to maximize their community impact? Even for the most well-intended and well-funded new endeavors, success can be hard to achieve. But rather than let risk dampen the imperative to innovate, consider how we might head off disappointing outcomes by starting strong, using these three principles of successful design:

Ideas must be desirable.

Stakeholders, clients, staff, and constituents must want or need your idea, and the most common misstep is failing to understand them: Effective ideas come from deep empathy with, or market research into, the people involved. This goes for any successful nonprofit output: A park, way of counseling, hospital room, or publication often result from recognizing a human need and crafting a thoughtful response.

Ideas must be feasible.

This means securing the technical infrastructure—possessing, creating, or customizing technology—to support the idea. This infrastructure may consist of partners, staff, and internal processes like education, each of which should be seen as a kind of “software” with many potential applications.

Ideas must be viable.

From a business perspective, an idea needs the ability to sustain itself. This means having the funding, processes, and skills—by way of staff or contractors—to keep the work going, and enough bandwidth to analyze results and respond to needs and changes.

Temper the creative impulse with these foundational tenets, and you’ll generate the kind of ideas that break new ground and build dependable, long-haul solutions for the community. Beginning with desire, feasibility, and viability, your design process will help you beat the odds and keep any new initiative from coming up short.

Happy designing!

Karen Beavor is president and CEO of GCN. 

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