Eight Rules for Innovation in Congregations

Innovation light bulbInnovation—creating programs and processes that meet new or as-yet-unarticulated needs—is now a standard expectation for leaders who want congregations to attract and retain new members or reach out to the community in new ways. But many congregations, having never had to go beyond small programmatic tweaks, don’t know where to start. Based on recent experience with a major innovation at the faith-based nonprofit that I lead, I’d like to offer some suggestions.

Incentivizing Healthy Food Choices

The Des Moines Area Religious Council manages a network of food pantries operated by partner nonprofits. DMARC’s role is to raise funds, provide free healthy food, set rules, and operate a database the makes the whole thing work like a system rather than a potpourri of unrelated good intentions. Together, we feed about 17,000 people every month.

This year, using funding won in a Shark Tank–like innovation competition, we changed procedures at one of our pantries to incentivize healthy food choices. We assigned each food option a score from 1–5 based on its nutritional value, with 1 being healthiest, and gave each client 36 points to spend each month. By choosing healthy, low-point-value foods, clients got to take more home. We’re tracking each client’s food choices over time to see if they choose healthier foods. We’re applying principles of behavioral economics in a food pantry setting.

Rules for Successful Innovation

After nine months of intensive work, here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Whenever possible, follow your expertise. In our case, this meant modifying a database we’d already developed in order to encourage even healthier choices in an already healthy food environment. In a congregational setting, going in the direction of your expertise might mean creating a great new children’s program because you already have paid staff or volunteers who know something about effective children’s programs.
  2. Use a team to develop your idea. In our case, we included a database developer, a trainer of volunteers, nutrition experts, a marketer, logistics planner, project manager, an advocate for immigrants and refugees, and the clients themselves. In a congregation, if you want to innovate in college student programs, you might start by talking with business owners near your local college, recent college graduates, and students, staff, and teachers at the college. Once you have a good idea of potential program opportunities, you can expand your team of experts even further.
  3. Anticipate delays. Our process essentially stopped for weeks while we tried to figure out why the tablets we were using to enter client data at the pantry couldn’t hold onto a wi-fi signal. If your innovation depends on modifying a building, you are certain to experience delays because of zoning regulations, city inspections, or contractors who can’t get the materials they need.
  4. Expect resistance. In our case, the pantry we’re working with is staffed almost completely by volunteers, some of whom were initially intimidated by the new technology and some of whom did not completely embrace the importance of healthy food for low-income people. Similarly, congregation members will not always be happy with an innovation that requires them to change their behavior or their worldview. Keep going!
  5. Pay attention when luck happens. We started collecting data when we wanted to give clients the opportunity to move around in the network rather than assigning them to one pantry. But we only started using data when a board chair with IT skills wanted to create maps and charts from the information we’d collected. Because of that stroke of luck, data collection and analysis has now become one of the most important and useful things we do.
  6. Work with realistic cost estimates. When we were trying to win the innovation competition, we knew some of the judges were entrepreneurs and software developers, so we developed a good cost estimate for hardware purchases and software development. If your congregation needs to turn its typical church kitchen into a commercial kitchen, or mitigate lead paint and asbestos before starting a new program, talk with contractors and architects to get a clear picture of costs.
  7. If possible, pay someone to manage the project. Though we hadn’t previously innovated on a large scale and didn’t know how much work it would involve, we asked a staff member to manage everything from hardware purchases to volunteer training. We couldn’t have completed the project without his attention to detail. Congregations frequently ask volunteers to do this kind of project management, many of whom are amazing—but often volunteers can’t dedicate the time successful innovation requires. When in doubt, pay someone.
  8. Expect exhaustion. In every change effort, everyone involved will reach a point—hopefully not at all once—where it just seems too daunting to keep going. Warn people this will happen. When it happens, remind them that you warned them. When the moment passes, celebrate!

Change is always hard. Even for those of us who love it, there are moments when the new thing that we’re trying to do just hurts our brains. But successful innovation, when an specific group of people clearly benefits from your hard work, is worth the effort: for them—and also for you.

Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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