the_lego_movie2014 If you're like most nonprofits, you haven't asked your donors for ideas recently. If ever. Maybe a major donor in conversation if you know him really well. But if you think about asking your whole list--well, either you worry about the deluge of criticism, or you figure you know your business better than they do.

And yet, as Anna Pikovsky Auerbach writes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

A few years ago, a Harvard Business Review article explained that customers want a shared purpose with corporations, not be bystanders. They want to feel like they are important, are a part of something, and have influence. In fact, customers are now integral to product development and innovation, and crowd-sourcing has become a commonplace method of gathering solutions, ideas, and funding. For example, one way that LEGO innovates is through its LEGO Ideas portal, which allows enthusiasts to submit ideas and share feedback, accelerating the company’s product-innovation cycle.

One of my clients has a very loyal core donor base that the client has done a great job keeping engaged socially. That means the donors know each other and interact with each other (generally they met through the organization). I've noticed that when I spend time with them, especially in twos and threes, ideas tend to get generated. But how many of those work their way up so the decision makers hear about them?

Things to think about:

  1. Do your donors know each other? If not, how could you be creating opportunities for friendships to be built so that your organization is a hub of creative energy rather than merely a source of it? (That's a lot less pressure on you!)
  2. Are you asking them for input? Not just "how are we doing," but actual creative input. Where should we be looking for new donors? Are we communicating our identity and our story in a way that you think works? How could we improve our programs? Are there ways in which you'd like to feel more a part of the picture--and what can we do about that?
  3. Is there a mechanism for getting and implementing new ideas from outside? This could be as simple as an occasional email or Facebook post asking for ideas. It could be a webform on your site that invites input. Or it could be built into your organizational DNA so that it's a part of every conversation everybody has with everybody else. Regardless, think about how an idea would turn into reality if you liked it--who would need to see it, who would need to sign off on it, how would the process keep moving?

Are there things you've done in this arena that you recommend to others? Consider sharing them in the comments or tweeting them to @BrianBrownSF.