Innovation for Nonprofits: How to Lead a Virtual Ideation Workshop

Innovation for nonprofits can be challenging. Here is a guide for leading your own ideation workshop.

Innovation for nonprofits may sound paradoxical. That’s because the traditional nonprofit model in the United States is rigid by design. Funding often comes from a mix of government or philanthropy-backed grants and donors, which can limit programming. Additionally, the average (“recommended”) 35 percent ceiling on overhead spending means uncompetitive salaries and frequent turnover. The combination of unreliable funding sources and restricted budgets not only make nonprofit organizations unsustainable, but makes innovation for nonprofits nearly impossible.

Innovation requires a certain amount of risk and typically, nonprofits are severely risk-averse. So, it’s no surprise that “tried and true” solutions are often favored over new, untested ideas. A well-designed ideation workshop, however, can unlock innovation for nonprofits by using their own resources.

What is ideation?

Ideation is structured brainstorming, the process of developing and conveying prescriptive ideas. When done right, ideation fuels innovation for nonprofits by enabling leaders to: (1) leverage existing employees’ knowledge and expertise, (2) identify core problems, and (3) develop effective solutions.

Cultivating innovation for nonprofits is often easier said than done – especially in times of social and political volatility. For over 135 years, Upbring has faced challenges head on with creative solutions.  Upbring Innovation Labs (UIL), the only innovation lab in the country dedicated to breaking the cycle of child abuse, is enthusiastic about facilitating innovation for nonprofits.

We believe that innovation does not require a surplus of funding, but rather a surplus of creativity. To get started, Upbring has provided a “how-to” guide below to assist nonprofit leaders in designing their own virtual ideation sessions.

Designing your workshop

The goal in designing a virtual ideation workshop is to create a safe, virtual space for creative exploration. Participants need to feel secure to open up and share their ideas. It is recommended that leaders thoughtfully consider the platform, participants, and agenda.


Virtual ideation presents a unique challenge in creating a safe space. Participants cannot all physically gather in a room, shut the door, and turn off their cellphones. Many of us are working from our kitchen tables and/or simultaneously caring for our children and pets. Choosing a platform that is interactive and user-friendly (such as Mural.co) enables all participants to be in one “room,” and their required participation keeps them engaged and focused.


Mindset is a large obstacle in sparking innovation for nonprofits. Participants for the ideation session should be chosen wisely. For example, employees may not feel safe to speak freely and openly about the challenges they face if their direct supervisor is in the room. The size of the group is also important. Too few participants may result in limited outputs, while too many participants may be difficult to manage virtually.


Variance, interaction, and timing are also key. When there are multiple activities and each activity includes an interactive element, participants stay engaged and are less likely to check their cell phones or refresh their inbox. Relatedly, each activity should take no longer than 18 minutes, the average attention span of an adult, and sessions should last no longer than 45 minutes before taking a break. A workshop can include multiple sessions, but keep in mind that participants are often working from home. If time is budgeted into the workshop to grab a coffee or let their dog out, they are less likely to be distracted and physically uncomfortable during activities and more able to focus on the task at hand.

Priming your participants

Cultivating innovation for nonprofits can be difficult because employees are often urged to design programs that minimize risk. Failure to do so results in undelivered services, unrenewed grants, and reduced donations. Innovation, however, requires us to think in terms of possibility, rather than limitation. Here are some techniques for leaders to prime their participants prior to the ideation session.

Set clear expectations

Assuming most nonprofit employees have never engaged in a human-centered design workshop, it is often helpful to set clear expectations for participation beforehand using pre-read materials. Many learners, particularly those in risk-averse settings, feel more secure when they know exactly what they are getting into and what is expected of them. Additionally, framing the workshop as an exciting opportunity to share rather than a judged performance helps set a tone of openness, inclusion, and creativity.

Send materials early

Ideation can make employees feel self-conscious, overexposed, or even just confused. It is recommended that leaders send invitations and materials one month, one week, and one day before the workshop. The more notice and awareness, the more comfortable participants will feel when they arrive. It is useful to include instructions for how to use the new platform (if applicable), workshop agenda, bios of the facilitators, an explanation of the workshop’s purpose, clear expectations for participants, and “food for thought” questions (i.e. “Imagine our organization was destroyed last night, but its environment remains as it was. How would you design the organization from the ground up?). 

Virtual Ideation Workshop Activities

Oftentimes innovation for nonprofits must be learned. Leaders should approach ideation as if they are teaching a new skill. Participants must crawl before they walk and walk before they run. Each activity should serve a distinct purpose but activities should also build on each other for a cohesive workshop.


A short, fun icebreaker activity is a low stakes way for participants to get acclimated to a new tool or platform and interact with each other. The key is to keep it short and simple to lay the foundation for the workshop. The icebreaker should last no longer than 10 minutes and require interaction with the tool or platform.

Affinity Mapping

Affinity mapping is a method that allows the group together large amounts of data and organize it into groups or themes based on relationships between data points. For virtual ideation, use a digital whiteboard when all participants have access to post information. It is helpful if participants can post their responses in “post-it” form. Start with a positive topic like “Organizational Strengths” to set the tone. Put 10 minutes on the timer and have everyone list as many ideas as they can think of without consideration for others’ submissions (repetitions are fine!). As a full group, organize the post-its in common themes and discuss. Then repeat the exercise but focus on the topic you want to ideate around, such as “Challenges.”  

Innovation Types

Innovation for nonprofits can be an abstract concept. UIL groups innovation into 4 types: Process, Product, Organizational, and Marketing. To prepare participants for brainstorming, it is suggested that leaders take time to review each innovation type using real-life examples and engage in an interactive activity to test participants’ understanding. For example, give the full group an unrelated, but simple challenge (i.e. “I am late to work every day”) and assign each participant or each small group of participants an innovation type (Process, Product, Organizational, and Marketing). Give each group 5 minutes to brainstorm an innovative solution (i.e. Product: alarm clock) then share with the full group and field questions.

Innovation Brainstorm

Building on the Innovation Types exercise, have each participant or small group choose a challenge to focus on (from the Affinity Mapping exercise). Put 10 minutes on the clock and have them brainstorm a “Product” solution using the Organizational Strengths (from the Affinity Mapping exercise). Repeat for each innovation type. Then, have each group share their favorite innovation and/or have the entire group vote for their favorite innovation for each category (favorite Product, favorite Process, etc.).

Follow through

Innovation for nonprofits is not a goal, but an ongoing process. The work does not end when the workshop is over. To foster a culture of innovation, it is recommended that leaders give participants a way to follow up and a place to submit their new ideas. It is also suggested that leaders develop a standardized way to evaluate ideas for selection to implement. UIL designed an Innovation Evaluation Calculator to analyze innovative ideas for nonprofits that can be used by any organization, regardless of size, industry, or location.


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