How Do Nonprofit Leaders Manage Unsolicited “Great Ideas?”

How Do Nonprofit Leaders Manage Unsolicited “Great Ideas?”id-100134015

By: Eugene Fram                                                                                  Free  Digital Photo

What does a board member or CEO do when a donor or valued volunteer approaches him/h with a great idea that needs to be implemented at once? Since most of these ideas are what a Stanford professor terms bad ideas, the board chair and CEO are often between a hypothetical rock and a hard place!  To agree to a proposed project that is impractical or irrelevant to the mission will put the nonprofit at risk. But to reject an eager volunteer or potential donor could have serious donor related financial or interpersonal consequences.

When bad ideas are suggested, nonprofit directors and CEOs traditionally have hastily reviewed them—then prolonged the evaluation process hoping the presenter will lose interest in it. When an immediate reply is called for, a full review of the project will involve board and management time and effort to provide a fair assessment. If the verdict is negative, everyone hopes for the best!

Professor Jonathan Bendor of Stanford University, who studies tech organization, proposes a solution that can be effectively used by nonprofit directors to address this “wicked” type of problem. *  (Persons in tech organizations are constantly generating new ides, only a handful of which meet customer requirements.)

Example of such a “wicked” problem

The CEO of an association received the following e-mail, with a cc, to the board chair from a major donor. In addition the donor immediately left a voice mail for the CEO, “Did you get my important e-mail?”

As you know, we are trying to get more people to our association’s evening lecture series on aging. I have noted that we have very few people attending who appear to be in the above the 65+ age cohort.   Obviously these persons could benefit from participating. The group is our most important tool to meeting the association’s mission.   I suggest we hire a bus to bring them to the meetings and to return them home.   To avoid having the bus going to each of their homes, we could establish easily accessible locations in various neighborhoods where they could meet and depart the bus.

The CEO then sent the following targeted rubric to his three senior managers and to four senior board directors, asking for their evaluations of the suggestion. Along with the board chair he wanted to be ready for a hostile response, if the suggestion is rejected.

Using A Rubric

A rubric is a format that uses established criteria for evaluating ideas and hopefully highlights innovative ones.   Following is one that has been formatted for the hypothetical situation described above in italics.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being low and ten being high, judge the above idea against all these criteria. Place a number value in the space after each item.

Example: Potential levels for each of the of the ten criteria: Little- one through four; moderately-five and six, and substantially-seven through 10.

  1. Supports the organization’s mission ______
  2. Is consistent with our vision and cultural values._____
  3. Can be implemented with no more than XXX in direct costs _____
  4. Can be implemented with no more than XXX in indirect costs ______
  5. Can require additional capital expenditures _____
  6. Can be implemented within the current staffing or board structure_______
  7. Can require a long trial period before it can be validated as having impact_____
  8. Can be supported by the CEO and/or a majority of the board_______
  9. Can be viewed by others in our field as being innovative______
  10. Will have significant positive impact for our clients.______

Comments: (Please express a summary opinion briefly.)


The form is then compiled anonymously. The CEO reviews the results with the board chair, and then reports to the donor or valued volunteer. If the idea is rejected but presented with sensitivity, it allows the originator to feel his/h idea has had a fair hearing. If accepted, the Chair and CEO can suggest plans for further study and challenges (perhaps additional financial support?) for implementation.

Bendor’s approach* can be well applied in both the tech and nonprofit environments. Most importantly, it provides a venue to help identify innovative ideas with the greatest potential for nonprofit mission success.





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