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Can Large Legacy Nonprofit Innovate?

How do you bring innovation to a 120-year-old nonprofit with 15,000 employees across the country? The Volunteers of America have been working on it for several months and its strategy is starting to work.


Last year the Alexandria, VA-based human services nonprofit realized there were a lot of creative programs going on throughout its 32 affiliates, but they weren’t being shared, much less being scaled, says innovation and capital SVP Robert Gibson. So with the help of a core group of employees and outside consultants, the organization, which primarily focuses on providing housing, healthcare and other human services to the most vulnerable people, started putting in place a formal process to grow innovative concepts that can be used across the organization. 

It’s all in the name of being more relevant to the people it serves, diversifying revenue streams and partly to appeal to Millennials as its future workforce. The word “innovation” is often associated with technology, startups and Millennials.


The organization helps 2 million people annually, including holiday dinners like this one last year in Durham, NC.

The nonprofit's innovation push started with a three-day weekend in Chicago with a group of 30 VOA employees who brainstormed specific ideas for how to share innovative strategies. The organization is taking a lean startup approach, a concept widely used by tech startups, where different ideas are tried out, as risky as they may be. It cuts out lengthy approvals by boards and committees.

One way the organization plans to use its new innovation focus is to develop new revenue streams from social entrepreneurship. VOA is looking at how to scale existing catering programs as a branded business line where some of the people that VOA serves are taught catering and business skills while also generating revenue for VOA by selling it as a service to organizations that need catering for events.

Robert says the whole idea of focusing on innovation is fairly unique among nonprofits, especially among large legacy organizations like VOA. That’s why much of the organization’s strategy is inspired by how the private sector approaches innovation. “We’re doing some trailblazing here,” Robert says. “There isn’t a not-for-profit playbook out there, so we’re pulling from a number of different playbooks.”