It’s not always easy being 143 years old. Today’s stars, including those in the social sector, are the disruptors and the start-ups: driven, hungry, agile. Traditional institutions are often cast as falling out of fashion, even a little lumbering.

The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer—a credibility survey of institutions—shows that although the American public trusts NGOs more than other types of organizations, there’s a new “chink in the image of the NGO, specifically related to innovation.” Whether we’re talking about a nonprofit that exists to combat poverty or one that exists to showcase great musicians, the institution is often seen as worthy but not especially dynamic.

As with a lot of other institutions, innovation has been a hot topic for us at the 92nd Street Y (92Y), a cultural center that creates community and enrichment for people at all stages of life. In recent years, we also built an innovation center to help us re-imagine what a cultural and community center does, how we meet our mission, and how we need to adapt.

We’ve made good progress on this front. Examples of how we’ve re-imagined our work for a new era include projects like #GivingTuesday, the global day of giving; the Social Good Summit, which opened up United Nations Week to a wider world; 7 Days of Genius, a crowdsourced (we call it “crowd-curated”) festival that gave rise to events in 60 countries; and initiatives like #NewYearPrayer, which united the Jewish community around the holidays.

These initiatives have led to new recognition. Fast Company recently named 92Y one of the 10 most innovative nonprofits in the country. For three years in a row, we have made the shortlist for the Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation. (Fourth time’s the charm?) And last week, we announced a $15 million naming gift to formalize our commitment to reimagining our mission for the 21st century in the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact.

It hasn’t always been a smooth path. Some things we thought would work didn’t. Other things went much better than we’d imagined. But as we look back at our progress, and look forward to what’s next, we’ve learned a few critical lessons so far. 

Innovation Should Be Fundamental, not Incremental

92Y runs more than 5,000 programs a year, in areas from Pilates to philosophy to poetry. We’ve set ambitious goals in recent years to increase revenues and impact, so when we started to think about innovation, we didn’t imagine it as a task we could tack on to already-full workloads. Instead, we established a dedicated team, without significant day-to-day demands, and gave them room to learn and experiment.

This was possible only because of the generous leadership and encouragement of 92Y board member Laurence Belfer, whose family named the center. From the start, he gave us the encouragement—and the financial resources—to innovate, even when we didn’t have an especially clear sense of where we would end up. This kind of research and development funding can be some of the hardest to raise, but it’s so critical. If we want our best-loved institutions to re-imagine themselves, they need the space and support to do so.

Little Bets Pay Off

One of the big challenges for established institutions is that they often perfect their best-loved programs over many years and get used to delivering them at a high standard. So embracing the experimental can feel very risky, and projects that fall short can feel expensive (especially in terms of reputation). We have worked to develop a culture that places many more “little bets,” as social entrepreneur Peter Sims call them, than we had before. Our most successful efforts (and our least successful, too) started off as relatively low-stakes investments. When they paid off, we pushed further. When they didn’t, we moved on. Either way, we learned something from the process.

Build from Within

We built our innovation team not by parachuting in whiz kids from the outside, but by re-assigning existing staff members. Fundraisers began spearheading major collaborative efforts, and program managers in our teen center started leading fellowship programs for entrepreneurs (not that big a leap). This strategy helped us build a center that feels more like a true part of the organization, rather than a separate silo for the cool kids. It also makes it much easier to share the lessons and techniques we develop at the center with the rest of 92Y—and vice versa.

Think Movements, not Programs

The traditional work of 92Y has been with people coming to our building to engage with our programs. But we’re focused on the need to learn new skills and create programs that connect people who may never set foot in the building to our core mission.

#GivingTuesday, for example, began as an effort to create a national (now global) community around the importance of philanthropy, one of our core values. We designed it as a movement that people everywhere can shape and steward. Under this program, groups of schoolkids have raised funds for local shelters in Alabama, cities like Baltimore have created city-wide campaigns, and Singapore now holds a full week of giving each year. These activities take place thousands of miles away from our home at 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, but they speak right to the heart of our mission.

Or take our Seven Days of Genius festival, an experiment in “crowd-curation,” where we hosted dozens of events and performances on our stages and in our classrooms, and created a framework that other organizations around the world could use. Under this banner, high school students held events around new ideas to combat gender inequality in countries such as Guatemala and Pakistan, entrepreneurs pitched groundbreaking ideas for improving the future in Nairobi and Honduras, and designers created ideas for sustainable development in Athens and Jerusalem.

We’re just beginning this work, but we see this approach as a great way to increase our impact—and with each emerging initiative, we build on the existing foundation and the growing network, and draw in new and experimental threads as well.

Build Strong, Symbiotic Partnerships

As we scale our work, successful partners are critical to our success. No organization can succeed on its own. When we come together with others (whether they’re media outlets, nonprofits, startups, academic institutions, or global NGOs), our goal is to develop deep, long-term relationships that go far beyond logo-squabble. The best partnerships are generative. In our projects with Stanford's Hoover Institution—American Conversation and Ben Franklin Circles—we have each benefitted from the other’s creativity and resources. Each partner has been able to access a new stable of talent and a new audience through the other, and the combined talents of the people involved have led to more creative and thoughtful overall products.

The idea that technology and innovation are solely the province of new organizations is a myth. Any institution that measures its history in decades, rather than years, has likely had plenty of experience adapting its work in a changing world; it wouldn’t have survived so long if it hadn't. (Back in 1925, 92Y was an early adopter of a brand-new technology: radio.)

And yet even our best-loved institutions are now facing a tough battle for relevance and reach. Organizations like ours, along with other cultural institutions and nonprofits that aim to serve the civic good, exist to enrich or improve people's lives in many different ways. As a sector, we should resist the “dinosaurs vs. unicorns” narrative that sees venerable institutions inevitably trampled by herds of the hottest “next big thing.” At the same time, we should resist the idea that a proud history guarantees a relevant future. Instead, the institutional world can excel by adopting (and adapting) the strengths of the entrepreneurial world, placing a premium on experimentation and generative partnerships as they fulfill their missions in ever more innovative ways.

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