Volunteers – as agents of innovation…

I just read the book “The Power of Why” by Amanda Lang, which was a very accessible read about innovation. I have been interested in the topic of innovation for awhile now, especially as it relates to the non-profit sector. Of course, in this book, all of the examples of innovation was within the for-profit sector, where companies are investing time and resources into improving their business to make more money. The examples are fascinating and it is an excellent read.
Lang investigates the question: what are the factors that make someone innovative? One of the key factors, that Lang points out to in her book and I have read in other books, is having an ‘outsiders perspective’. The advantage of the ‘outsider’ is that they see with ‘fresh eyes’, and they are not afraid to ask new questions or try out new ideas. The ‘outsider’ is more likely to be a risk-taker and therefore an innovator, because they aren’t personally invested in keeping the status quo. They aren’t afraid of change.
When I think about this in the non-profit context, volunteers are the perfect ‘outsiders’ and potential innovators. They are often more outsiders to an organization than the paid staff, and they aren’t as invested in keeping the status quo. Volunteers come to volunteering from different backgrounds and experiences, and volunteering is usually a small (but critical) part of their life, integrated with their other elements of life. The fact that volunteers aren’t on payroll is critical and an opportunity for innovation – they are not afraid of change in the way that paid staff may be. Paid staff rely on their jobs for their livelihood, and therefore, there is good reason to be afraid of change.
My questions that I am grappling with are: what role can volunteers play in non-profit organizations, as agents of innovation? What practices do non-profit organizations need to adopt in order to allow for innovation to happen? What examples of innovation exist in the non-profit sector (I’m especially interested in Toronto, Canada, because I understand the structural context that non-profits are in here) and what are the conditions that made this innovation possible?
I would love to find and document an example (or even examples) of a volunteer who was critical in innovative change within the non-profit sector. Innovation doesn’t need to be a major overhaul, but often the most innovative change is a small but critical change, that makes a major impact.


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