Risks, taking them, not avoiding them, has been one of my measures of success, both personally and of non-profits. It is by taking risks that I grow and it is how organizations grow too. It is also how they keep their audience interested and taking notice.

I know that taking risks gets talked about a lot in the private sector, but it is something that is often sorely lacking in the non-profit world. I would actually argue that there is a strong tendency for non-profit leaders to be risk averse. Now this is understandable as donors are giving you money out of generosity and enthusiasm for the work that your non-profit is undertaking. This is delicate relationship built on the trust of the donor. And that is where the problem lies. It is a one sided relationship. Most nonprofits don’t know their donors let alone trust them.

The result is you have a situation where status quo is often maintained, even when it is failing to attract new donors. The thinking being that at least we know that this has worked in the past, we know we aren’t offending anyone and we know roughly how much it will cost to produce x result – and that is what is in the budget for this year.

The answer is pretty simple: Get to know your donors, listen to them and inspire them by taking some risks. They will go and tell their friends and family about your non-profit if you listen to them, truly listen and are responsive and if you surprise and delight them with your daring. This is all, of course, easier said than done.

In order for this to become a reality, leadership needs to create an environment where it is expected that staff will take risks. When things don’t go as planned, leadership and management need to truly see the lessons learned as valuable, and maybe even more valuable than a moderate success. Leadership needs to create the space in the workload for innovation, put enough room in budgets to fund the great idea that someone had in the shower and help get the naysayers to least not be actively obstructive.

In a time when donor acquisitions are getting harder and harder to do in the mail and online is still a custom job, risks have to be taken, inspiration and passion for the cause have to be generated and you aren’t going to be able to do it by being safe.