Harvard Business School » Social Enterprise » Blog » Keeping Pace: Innovation in Nonprofit Governance
Impact Insights

Keeping Pace: Innovation in Nonprofit Governance

By: Kay Mathers 19 Oct 2017

Governing for Nonprofit Excellence (GNE) is a Harvard Business School executive education program designed for nonprofit board leaders. To learn more about GNE and our other executive education programs, visit our website. Read more about one participant’s program experience below.

It’s not out of the question to wonder if the work we do in the nonprofit sector is creating change, really impacting the outcomes we seek. It’s also not out of the question to continually ask if the work we do is relevant to the private sector. Are we keeping up with innovation, or is innovation forcing us to modify how we do our work? Having come from the television-news business, I was used to a fast pace, but nonprofits aren't known for their fast-paced, innovative approaches, which, frankly, has its downside. We are doing vital work. We are trying to keep pace - the problems we face have taken decades to evolve. To impact our missions will most likely take just as long.

My nonprofit, Girls Incorporated, for which I am board chair, began out of a necessity of cultural change. The Industrial Revolution found many women and girls forced into workplaces and thrust into positions as heads of households. In order to find commonality and support, at an extremely volatile point in history, Girls Clubs was born. After decades of evolution the work and purpose became refined and the name of the organization changed. Girls Incorporated is now functioning in over 100 communities nationwide with the mission statement to “inspire all girls to be strong, smart and bold” and with a vision of “empowering girls in an equitably society.”

The work is getting more complicated. Just look at the numbers: 1 in 4 girls experiences sexual abuse by age 17. One in 5 teen girls experience mental disorders before adulthood, and only 22% of girls are happy with their body image. Overwhelming problems and an extremely complicated network of cultures, divisions and biases all contribute to the high demand of our work.

By looking at these statistics, moms, dads and educators would say we are in a crisis of sorts. Girls attacked on all sides by hyper-sexualization of women and girls in the media, pressures to be perfect and the overwhelming fear of not feeling safe are all key elements of why our work is more relevant now more than ever. But how do we transition our work from after-school care into one that has a larger relevance? How can we reach girls in urban and rural settings logistically? How do we grow the next leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators?

Governing for Nonprofit Excellence (GNE) challenged me to question our innovative strategies. Through GNE, I have been able to understand the relevance of the “Theory of Change,” as it applies to Girls Incorporated. Our organization has undergone a four-step process using the Theory of Change that began in 2010, and we are currently in our last stage. GNE put everything into context for me in a broad sense and acted as a checklist to see if our practices measured up to other relevant case studies. No logic model is perfect, but ours came close.

My local affiliate is about to embark on a massive growth strategy. We want to grow the number of girls we serve by 30% and deliver our programs directly to high-risk areas in our community. The knowledge I gained at GNE will serve as a test of my ability to lead the organization’s board through our own logic model.  The network of other non-profit leaders that I met will serve as my sounding board for the process. I feel like GNE not only gave me the knowledge to do the work, but also provided me with a team of 59 other professionals that I can use to help encourage me through the process.