Characteristics of Community Innovation


The word “innovation” is everywhere. Recently, the term’s omnipresence has extended to the nonprofit and public sectors. The question is: What does innovation look like when it takes place in a community, among neighbors, schools, organizations, local and regional governments, and businesses?

We recently completed a study with the Bush Foundation that begins to answer this question. The purpose of this study, called Characteristics of Community Innovation, was to learn from organizations that have been recognized with the Bush Prize for Community Innovation, an annual award from the Bush Foundation that honors and supports organizations with a track record of making great ideas happen.

The Bush Foundation defines a community innovation as a breakthrough solution to a community problem that is more equitable, effective, or sustainable than previous solutions.

Here are some important things we learned from Bush Prize winners about how community innovation happens.  

1. Community innovation relies on relationships and empathy.

Listening is an important value for all Bush Prize winners. They listened to their constituents through regular and on-going engagement; they listened to their organizational partners through collaborative planning and task execution in pursuit of their innovation; they also listened to their government representatives, funders, and others in their field. By making an effort to understand, engage, and incorporate many perspectives, Bush Prize winners built relationships and knowledge that helped them to make their innovation happen.

2. Community innovation is messy.

Many community innovations were achieved in ways that were unexpected from the outset, and they often took more time than was originally anticipated to achieve. The “messiness” of community innovation is distinct from innovation in other sectors because community innovation relies on relationships – as well as social and political processes – to operate in a new way to get the job done. Because of this, community innovation requires a specific set of skills, especially relationship-building and active listening. When their work got messy, Bush Prize winners reframed challenges as learning opportunities, and pushed forward with this deeper knowledge.

3. Community innovation requires many voices.

Bush Prize winners readily gave credit to the many people who helped accomplish their innovation, so much so that they might take issue with calling it “theirs.” Complex community problems cannot be adequately addressed by one sector, let alone one organization. Bush Prize winners spread their networks far and deep in order to bring in the people with the skills, relationships, or insights that could help them accomplish their innovation. With many perspectives involved, Bush Prize winners had to check their own assumptions about how to do the work. They also ensured that their innovation was representative of – or at least considered – each perspective offered. The takeaway is that community innovation does not happen in a silo, and that solutions to community problems should be owned by many.

Community innovation happens when current systems and ways of working are openly questioned, when timelines and funding are flexible, and when people are listened to and their input is incorporated into new ways of doing things. Working in this way can be difficult because of time and financial constraints. I take encouragement from the fact that, while no Bush Prize winner did this work without experiencing challenges, they still accomplished their community innovation.

If you want more information about how community innovation happens, please see the Characteristics of Community Innovation report. If you are interested in learning more about the Bush Prize, you can find more information here.