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Author: Bruce Anderson, CAE

If associations don’t change to better serve their end users, those customers will gradually find other alternatives. Once that shift has begun, it is very difficult to respond.

“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” Picasso

As Picasso suggests, innovation is a fundamental change. Its Latin root, novus means new. Innovation begins with generating new thinking about how things can be done differently. However, it is the successful implementation of the change and the resulting transformation that marks effective innovation. Thus, innovation is about new ways of doing things.

Why is Innovation Important?

Creativity helps generate ideas; innovation brings those ideas into value-creating activities. Value is determined by your customers (members and others). These activities are necessary to be more effective with limited resources, to attract and retain members, and to differentiate your organization from others. Consider this

“The world is changing very fast. Big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow.” Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO, News Corporation

Innovation helps you to be more nimble. Being innovative will be the difference between relevant today and being relevant tomorrow, and into the future.

Innovation Process

Generating ideas and creativity is only one part of innovation. The creative process is how the ideas are generated.  Both evaluation and implementation of the ideas are equally important. The innovation process (Rogers, 1982), can be adapted for associations as follows:



A. Initiation

1. Recognition of a problem or need and assessment against association strategy.
2. Creativity – idea(s) generation.
3.Screening of ideas and removing unsuitable ones.
4. Development of an innovation solution.

B. Evaluation

5. Financial appraisal and assessment of contribution to association strategy.

C. Implementation

6. Implementation of the innovation.
7. Management of change resulting from innovation.

This is a general process and may be modified by the type and scope of the application. For example, the rollout of a new product or service may also involve additional research and a market development component. However, innovation will always involve several key stages: initiation, evaluation, and implementation.

Barriers to Innovation 

Innovation doesn’t appear in all organizations. Associations can put up roadblocks that block innovation. Some examples of innovation blocks are:



Excessive analysis slows change

Give staff authority to make decisions for a certain level/scope of problems.

People afraid of making mistakes

Risk-taking culture should be encouraged; recognize risk-takers, don’t penalize errors.

No priority or time for innovation

A portion of each person’s job duties set to pursue innovation; annually appraise ability to innovate.

Lack of expertise

Allow staff to access other staff for quick input sessions to clarify the problem or generate possible solutions.

Lack of resources for projects

Develop small pool of funds to be accessed for pilot projects leading to innovation.

Problem is too big

Break problem into smaller parts and work on one at a time.

Staff doesn’t have required skills

Professional development could focus on problem-solving skills, small group facilitation, marketing (to build customer focus), project management, and idea generation techniques.

Lack of a shared vision

Involve staff in visioning and help staff understand the vision.

Recognizing and addressing the issues behind the blockages will move your association toward being an effective innovator.

Adapting the Current Business Model

A business model is how an organization delivers value for its customers. Currently, many not-for-profits deliver services through a membership model, but increasingly that model is limiting the growth of those organizations. Thus, associations need to find alternate business models to generate revenues from both non-members and members (including smaller segments of members). Alternative models might include: different value propositions (ways to solve customer needs), new partnerships, or different sales channels (e.g., Internet delivery versus on-site education). The “Innovation in Action” paragraph gives an example of an association’s innovative process in generating revenue from members and non-members.

Innovation in Action

What does an organization constrained by geography do to rapidly increase revenues so it is not taken over by other organizations? This is the situation that faced the CAA Saskatchewan (a provincial branch of the Canadian Automobile Association). Something had to be done when the September 11, 2001 events and new car manufacturers’ road-side assistance programs removed $1 million from CAA Saskatchewan’s bottom line. With a constraint preventing CAA-branded programs to be sold into other auto club jurisdictions and with the 2nd highest market penetration rate in North American (51% versus Canadian average of 32%), CAA Saskatchewan looked at their member base and developed new products (Anderson and Rouse, 2011).  They pioneered the first North American auto repair and used auto sales, created a personal accident insurance business line, bought a bankrupt bus company (which now has 40% of motor coach market), and began selling these services to other provinces. In the last ten years, CAA Saskatchewan revenues have tripled and with further innovations planned, the organization has a plan to triple growth again over the next ten years.


Enhancing Innovation 

To improve overall innovativeness, an organization needs to manage its culture and strategy process. Managing strategy means knowing what needs to be done and how it will be done. It also means engaging people, at all different levels in developing and implementing strategy. A participatory culture encourages people to be involved in strategy. In a positive and supportive culture, experimentation is encouraged.


Synetics refers to a group brainstorming technique, focused on specific tasks and used to support efforts to resolve a problem, and involves the following steps (Potter, 2005):

a)   A problem owner (person responsible for solving the problem) states to the group what is his/her view of the problem.
b)   Group brainstorms potential definitions or alternative statements of the problem
c)   Problem owner selects a few problem definitions for further review
d)   One or more of the refined problem definitions are brought back to the group, who brainstorm potential solutions.
e)   The problem owner selects from the potential solutions for further analysis or research or may use the group again for further development of the solutions.

Innovation can also be encouraged through a variety of other techniques. A useful process is to look for role models or best practices outside of the not-for-profit sector, as research has shown most innovation in a sector comes from outside the organization’s industry.  Often, an assumption (e.g., an association assumes no member will pay for web-site content) is constraining, so any limitations should be challenged.Changing relationships and the internal environment (e.g., pulling the accounting staff and program staff together for a special project) can provide a fresh set of eyes to existing situations. Changing work contexts or how the work gets done also encourages fresh thinking.   In summary, innovation can be encouraged by changing the rules, looking outside of the organization, or modifying how problems are approached.


  • Set up e-mail suggestion box. A prize or a share of the gains could be given for top suggestions.
  • Train supervisors to listen and not be judgemental.
  • Be open about what the problem is and invite help.
  • Avoid penalizing/humiliating people for mistakes.

Innovation in Various Roles

Innovation requires a team approach. In many cases, what is needed to initiate innovation is beyond what one individual can do.  Roles for team members include: idea generators, idea champions, idea assessors, and problem articulators. Other roles include:

Association Innovator
Every innovation needs one or more idea champions to initiate and advocate for the idea. They are goal-oriented and creative in their pursuit of innovation. Anyone in an association can be an idea generator or champion.

As a Co-worker
Supportive co-workers rally behind ideas but also give constructive feedback to the idea generators and idea champions. The co-workers can also identify or refine the problem, often bringing their specific problems to the group for input and reflection.

As a Manager and / or Chief Staff Officer (CSO)
Innovation will not occur without a supportive manager, a manager who recognizes the value of innovation and encourages behaviours consistent with an innovative culture. Opportunities for innovation are created by providing time and allocating resources to ideas and encouraging temporary work teams to pursue ideas. Support for staff might be articulated by messages such as, “I will support your idea if it is relevant and consistent with our vision and strategy.” Thus, the CSO becomes the interpreter and protector of the vision for the association staff.

Perhaps the most important role of the CSO is that of coach and facilitator. The astute manager will move people around to create new perspectives and to support an environment that leads towards more flexibility and less rigidity. In this environment, the staff will ask more questions and should be taught how to correctly challenge the way things are done 

While some people have a knack for creating concepts and generating ideas, everyone can be innovative. However, innovation requires supportive behaviours from co-workers and leaders.

The above is an excerpt from Canadian Association Management, 2nd edition, the definitive source of information on leadership, latest developments and best practices in the not-for-profit sector, published by and available through the Canadian Society of Association Executives.