How to transform an institution into an innovation

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If your venerated nonprofit has always done things a certain way, innovation is too often met with that reticent refrain.

But just because it “ain’t broke” doesn’t mean it still works for your community.

When I arrived as a volunteer at the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Ana, the nonprofit’s mission was to “keep kids off the street.”

An Xbox and a pizza could do that. We needed to do more. Kids need a way to end the cycle of poverty and break past the circumstances limiting their potential. So we started asking questions and challenging ingrained assumptions, until we arrived at a mission that has innovation at its very core.

A mission with meaning

Our new mission is to ensure every child has mentors and champions in life. To accomplish this, we needed to distinguish between thinking like a charity and thinking like a social enterprise. To us, being a nonprofit is a tax status, not a business plan.

Nine years ago, at the age of 28, I was named CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Ana. Today, we have emerged as a flagship institution of innovation. I oversee 60 sites throughout Orange County, serve as an advisor to the Boys & Girls Club organization nationwide and promote social entrepreneurship across the country.

We teach other nonprofits to abandon their mindset of scarcity. Nonprofits traditionally beg for every donation, but why apply a weak business strategy to a mission that is critical to society?

By presenting the right mission that inspires people and drives change, we partner with the business community to create collective impact and deliver real results. This has changed our reputation as well as our approach. The key factors for innovation are leadership, culture and flexibility. Too often, nonprofits exhibit none of the above. So we adopted the for-profit world’s embrace of results.

Getting comfortable with change

We developed the Impact Model, a holistic strategy focused on academic reinforcement, fitness and a wide range of enrichment curriculum. We are constantly evolving our curriculum to match kids’ needs.

Sometimes this means veering out of our comfort zone. To prepare kids for the economy that awaits, we wanted to teach them to code. None of us knew how. Rather than say, “We can’t,” we said, “We’d better learn.”

I reached out to the tech community in Orange County and to Vistage. Today, our kids learn coding — along with robotics, engineering, Toastmasters and entrepreneurship.

No, that’s not what we had always done, but it’s what we needed to be doing. The club wasn’t broke, but we owed it to our clients to make it better.

More on innovative thinking: Creativity & collaboration

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Business Journal.

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Robert Santana

A United States Air Force veteran, Robert Santana is the CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Orange Coast, serving Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Newport Beach and Orange. He also advises and consults several nonprofit and for profi…

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