Nonprofit Innovation: What Can Barbers Teach Nonprofits?

Nonprofit Innovation: What Can Barbers Teach Nonprofits?

By: Eugene H. Fram

Reading several different blogs comments on nonprofit innovation reminded me of a story I tell my marketing. Here is a brief abstract: When men started to wear their hair longer in the 1980s, two classes oh barbers responded. One class cursed the change, while they became innovative stylists. In the area in which I was living, during the 80s, the number of barbers dropped from 1,000 to 300.

Seth Godin, the famous marketer, thinks that nonprofits have a charter to be innovators. But they aren’t he states in a recent blog. “The thing about most cause/welfare non-profits is that they haven’t figured out how to solve the problem they’re working on (yet). … Too many don’t have a method for getting to the root cause of the problem and creating permanent change.” He than suggests that some nonprofits should, “Go fail. And then fail again. Nonprofit failure is rare, which means that non-profit innovation is too rare as well. Innovators understand that their job is to fail, repeatedly, until they don’t. ”

Comments to a recent BoardSource exchange on innovation had the following reactions:
• Nonprofit founders are focused on specific goals and never go beyond them.
• Decision makers in nonprofits follow the “not invented here” viewpoint and fresh ideas are threatening.
• Many executive directors do not see the “potentially positive role board-level committees (including of non–board members & staff) can play in generating new ides.”

My reaction is that Godin is off base, although I strongly suggest that nonprofits can prosper by adopting the better business practices and vice versa. Few foundations would play “venture capitalist” to nonprofit leaders who have a record of failure. For example, Geoffrey Canada has successfully led the development of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Although the HCZ model is well know, it has yet to be duplicated elsewhere.

The comments from the BoardSource blog have been developed from field experience and remind us that nonprofit innovative leaders are in short supply. The barbers of the 1980s teach us that we must be prepared to innovate when change impacts our field, whether it be style or technological innovation.

But be prepared to think outside of the box. I still go to one barber who cuts my hair, less often, but he still doesn’t work on two heads at a time. Similarly, it is unlikely that marriage counselors will soon be mediating two warring couples at a time, unless some drug company comes up with a pill that enables the counselors to be more innovative.

Nonprofit innovation, as shown by the HCZ project, is very difficult, but it is still very possible in the nonprofit governance arena. For some practical examples, see my blog ( & book ( )
What do others on this exchange see as the state of nonprofit innovation? Is it as dire as indicated by the comments cited above?

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