Why innovation isn’t just for entrepreneurs

- January 14, 2019 3 MIN READ

The not-for-profit sector is a traditional industry, often constrained by bureaucracy, political agendas and a fair few wads of red tape. There are rules to abide by and procedures to follow, however as CEO of Victorian not-for-profit, State Schools Relief, Sue Karzis knows, when it comes to making a difference, sometimes rules are meant to be broken.

I moved into the role of CEO at State Schools Relief in early 2018 and soon realised just how ripe for innovation the industry really is. There are more than 2600 NFPs in Victoria alone which means there is great competition in the sector. It also means that it’s crucial to innovate, transform and grow when it comes to attracting support, otherwise, you’ll just be held back by all that tape.


The rise of technology has greatly influenced the need for innovation, especially in NFPs. Today, people understand (and use regularly) computers, emails, SMS and social media. They see a handout in their mailbox and immediately throw it away. We now exist in a time when people will most likely refuse to take leaflets from someone in the street. GenX and GenY simply will not respond to traditional modes of communication. This is a primary reason for innovation. In fact, according to the 2017 GiveEasy Innovation Index, NFPs see technology as a key driver for innovation. And many NFPs are jumping on board.

Barriers to innovation

Of course, as with anything in business there will be barriers. In our industry, many NFPs believe that red tape is a huge obstacle. Others believe the cost of implementing ideas is a hurdle that they’re not willing to jump. And for others, it’s a lack of knowledge or skills that are required that seems to be stopping the business from transforming. However, despite these barriers, which are legitimate and understandable concerns, there are ways to innovate, transform and grow in the NFP sector. In fact, according to recent reports, approximately 95% of NFPs are pursuing innovation strategies.

Here are three ways to ensure your NFP is keeping up.

1. Find your strengths

As a new CEO who wanted to establish a transformation agenda, I soon realised that our key strengths at State Schools Relief was the unique service delivery that we provide, and the fact that as an organisation we had developed relationships, reach and influence in the school sector. These relationships could be leveraged to develop a new and innovative business model, which would provide increased revenue and less reliance on government funding in the future. Further, we looked at our staff and saw where our individual strengths could help our overarching agenda. For example, my experience with marketing allowed me to employ an entrepreneurial approach and to see opportunities which have delivered results.

 2. Be open to change

There’s no use committing to transformation if you’re not on board with change. And I mean change in all areas. Changing the language used and culture of the organisation can be fundamental to innovation. Developing allies internally and externally who will champion the vision and assist in achieving results is key to success. For us, talking about opportunities, focusing on the vision, addressing the strategic objectives at every opportunity and helping staff to focus on the opportunities rather than the challenges has helped move our NFP in a new direction within a very short space of time.

3. Live and breathe the transformation

At the management level, you need to lead the change. Staff will follow in your footsteps so if they see that you are encouraging innovation and growth, they will not only champion the change in direction, but they may even come up with their own ideas. Bringing a commercial mindset meant that I was able to view the potential of the organisation differently. For example, the stock used for our charitable work has a commercial value and can be used to drive revenue. This part of our operation has become the social enterprise arm, which drives sales to fund the charity. In order to implement these changes, I have had to lead the change and ensure that staff understood the vision. In turn, this has helped drive change in an environment which has remained largely unchanged for many years.

Diversification and innovation are key to remaining sustainable. Key to remember though is that a change in direction, innovation and transformation may not always be met with enthusiasm. Regardless, be brave, take risks and be willing to fail, and whatever you do, tear through the tape.

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