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Innovation Tips for Animal Shelters and Non-Profits

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Alex K James

Alex always wants to help the world be a better place. His background is in software innovation and partnerships, and he also founded a startup that helps to destigmatize mental health.

Innovation is all around us whether we are aware of it or not. Ideas and improvements to products, services, and/or the well-being of others are fleshed out on the daily with some turning into bootstrapped or funded organizations that address a need in today's world. There is a major problem however when it comes to the for-profit vs non-profit sector. "Many nonprofits fail to innovate at the pace of the for-profit sector. While our methods are outdated, our spending restrictions won’t allow us to take leaps." - Sarah Evans (Forbes March 3, 2020)

Innovation: Non-Profit vs For-Profit Sectors

For-profits benefit from being able to allocate any of their extra resources towards a myriad of innovative approaches from looking externally through partnerships, accelerators, and acquisitions, to internally with R&D, intrapreneurship, and innovation labs. There are also many methods to sourcing innovative ideas, products, and services to generate other revenue sources, decrease risk, or fend off competition.

Resources like finances (grants and donations), volunteers and shelter staff, and time are harder to come by as a shelter or rescue. Products and material items are not taken into account as all shelters are doing an honorable service to their community and animal welfare.  "For the most part, nonprofits are acting on already proven or quickly proven concepts. R&D investments are difficult to justify when the parameters of charity rating platforms preclude spending on efforts outside of the mission and without short-term results." - Sarah Evans

What is innovation anyways? Let's first define it and then discuss how you can successfully implement it!


Defining Innovation

innovation (noun) in·​no·​va·​tion | \ ˌi-nə-ˈvā-shən 

1: a new idea, method, or device : NOVELTY
: the introduction of something new

A few areas of focus in innovation can include --

Process: This is the combination of facilities, skills, and technologies used to produce, deliver, and/or support a product or provide a service. Within this there are countless ways to improve process. A change of process can improve customer experiences and reduces time and money spent internally, improving employees lives and day-to-day activities.

Business Model: This form of innovation is most challenging as it requires major changes to an organization. Typically, the capabilities and/or processes that have been optimized to make an organization successful will become the targets for transformation. This is an example where self-disruption occurs to set the organization ahead of themselves and others.

Product: As noted, product innovation is non-essential to most non-profits, especially animal shelters 


Innovation Success & How to Define it for Animal Shelters


If you are looking to innovate with limited resources, you must first identify the areas of need within your non-profit organization. Whether that is through operational excellence, process improvements, technology improvements, digitizing or automating manual tasks, you can make these changes at the pace of which you and your team can handle them.

In order to fully understand the areas that need improvement, you must first map out your current workflows, find the bottlenecks that are wasting time, effort, or providing poor experiences for your customers and/or staff.  Where are inefficiencies hiding? Who is most impacted?

Do your due diligence on new, cutting edge companies, ideas, products, or services that can address your major areas of concern. Research and test the case with them to make sure it is a solution that fits and can be molded or iterated to meet your needs. (For ideas on where to look, please see the bonus resources section below!)

With an intimate knowledge of your internal process and an area  you have identified you want to innovate on to help make improvements, try to see if you have the data to measure the results of your current process or outcomes as a benchmark for future efforts. This way you have metrics that can guide your organization towards successful implementation and iterations of an innovative new product, technology, or service. Remember, there is no one size fits all solution or approach to addressing inefficiencies. Your shelter/rescue is unique, with its own goals and areas of focus that each require a unique approach.



As Innovation Leader puts it honestly for non-profit innovation, "No Money, No Mission". If animal shelters cannot get the necessary funds from grants and generous donations, then adoption fees will most likely not cut it in helping to innovate or even continue operations. Shelters reinvesting in themselves, their processes, technology, and operations will provide them with happier staff,  community members, board members, donors, grant writers, and ultimately happy animals with faster, positive outcomes.

It's possible to continue your nonprofit efforts while sharing a successful model or product elsewhere in the sector for a bigger impact and greater organizational sustainability.

In our experience, the most important factors to success include an open-minded, forward-thinking and vigilant nonprofit board, as well as key investors and a very hardworking, brave team skilled in change management.


Bonus Resources

If you are interested in finding the newest, cutting edge ideas and innovations in your space, you can tap into the following resources:

1. Your network of animal welfare peers - Large shelters that have been around for a long time and are on the forefront of change management and improving their operations are always a great place to start when looking for new ways to improve your organization. Start a conversation or ask around and you will surely find a friendly face who is willing to share their thoughts on what is working and not working in the space. 

2. Webinars and Trade Shows - Going to the latest and greatest shows and online events that showcase new technology or companies is always a great way to stay up to date on new and existing ideas or solutions. If you want to get on the ground floor for cutting edge solutions, the next resource is for you!

3. Startup accelerators - This comprehensive list has focus areas that are solving problems in the non-profit sector which narrows down your search drastically for an affordable and flexible answer. Startups are often much more lean, nimble, and willing to make changes to meet your specific needs.

MassChallenge - Mass Challenge is a nonprofit itself. They call themselves “the most startup-friendly accelerator on the planet” due to their “no equity” policy. Talk to a team member there and pointedly ask them if there are any startups that address your specific areas of need. Their friendly staff is always willing to help! (I first met our Founder and CEO during his time here, and he is the friendliest!)

Techstars- With startup accelerator programs all over the world, this is a wide reaching organization with laser focus on different areas of need. Start by reaching out to the program closest to you to find out more.

Fast Forward- Fast Forward is unique. They are the only tech nonprofit accelerator, supporting entrepreneurs who are using technology to advance social impact.

Petco Love Innovation Showdown - Dallas Animal Services helped build the foundation of Adōpets ’ software with their Petco Innovation Challenge Grant to modernize the pet adoption experience. Other great ideas and startups have been bolstered and built through this non-profit platform

To learn more ways to innovate, different innovation programs, and Adōpets, click here to find some time with me, Alex, the author!

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