IdeaScale Nation

The United Way: Innovation Isn't About Being the Most Creative Person in the Room

December 18, 2019 IdeaScale Season 1 Episode 9
IdeaScale Nation
The United Way: Innovation Isn't About Being the Most Creative Person in the Room
Chapters
IdeaScale Nation
The United Way: Innovation Isn't About Being the Most Creative Person in the Room
Dec 18, 2019 Season 1 Episode 9
IdeaScale

The United Way is a nonprofit organization that works with over 1,200 local United Way offices throughout the country. It’s a coalition of community-based and community-led solutions that focus in three key areas: education, financial stability and health. United Way is committed to innovation in really concrete ways: they have a social innovation center, a social innovation accelerator, coaching and mentoring programs for leaders across the country, and United Way was added to the Fast Company’s list of most innovative companies for 2019. Edwin Goutier is the VP of Innovation for the United Way and he's responsible for inspiring and coordinating efforts across their global network. In this episode, Edwin teaches us about what lessons a Vice President of Innovation learns along the way. For example, innovation is not about just being the most creative person in the room. According to Edwin, the best innovators are those that also have an understanding of their business and how these ideas can be implemented to that business.

Show Notes Transcript

The United Way is a nonprofit organization that works with over 1,200 local United Way offices throughout the country. It’s a coalition of community-based and community-led solutions that focus in three key areas: education, financial stability and health. United Way is committed to innovation in really concrete ways: they have a social innovation center, a social innovation accelerator, coaching and mentoring programs for leaders across the country, and United Way was added to the Fast Company’s list of most innovative companies for 2019. Edwin Goutier is the VP of Innovation for the United Way and he's responsible for inspiring and coordinating efforts across their global network. In this episode, Edwin teaches us about what lessons a Vice President of Innovation learns along the way. For example, innovation is not about just being the most creative person in the room. According to Edwin, the best innovators are those that also have an understanding of their business and how these ideas can be implemented to that business.

Speaker 1:

The big aha moment has been innovation is about core understanding of the business and of the environment around you. And that's been really helpful because it helps you funnel the energy of those who are sure that innovation is about being the most creative person in the room. But you can always map back to the things that are , um, the most important.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible] [inaudible]

Speaker 3:

welcome everyone to idea scale nation, our podcast where we talk to change makers, innovation program leaders, futurists and other intrepreneurs. This month we've invited Edwin [inaudible] who is the vice president of innovation for the United way. For those of you who don't already know, the United way is a nonprofit organization that works with over 1200 local United way offices throughout the country. It's sort of a coalition of community based and community led solutions. Um , they focus sort of in three key areas, education, financial stability and health. And this means their projects can be quite the range of things. Anything from community gardens to storm relief efforts or afterschool programs for students. It's actually estimated that the United way serves the needs of over 60 million people in the U S the United way is committed to innovation and actually some really concrete ways. You guys have got a social innovation center, a social innovation accelerator. You've got great coaching and mentoring programs for your leaders across the country. And actually the United way was added to fast company's list of most innovative companies for 2019 so congratulations. And that's a lot of thought leadership in a field that really needs to benefit from positive change. So I'm excited to learn more about how you coordinate all of those efforts across so many communities. So let's get started. Edwin, welcome to our podcast. And in the past you've talked about how United way has always had a rich history of innovation. Um, can you tell me what an early example of United way innovation might be?

Speaker 1:

Yes, absolutely. I think really the founding of the United way is a great example of a United way innovation. And so in Denver in 1887, you think about a community that is growing exponentially in terms of population and also dealing with a lot of social issues. This is right after the end of the gold rush, but you still had people coming to the city thinking that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And mostly finding challenging situations for themselves, for their families and the social sector, churches, religious institutions, they were really stretched. Uh , they were being asked constantly for resources, for money, for funding. And it was really difficult for local community leaders to understand which organizations were doing the best work, where money should be , uh, delivered. And it was a group of people, a business woman, a priest, and a rabbi. It sounds like a bad joke, but , um , those are the attendees. And they got together, they decided on two things really. One was we need to have some kind of central vetting organization so that we understand the work that's happening in the community and , uh , who, which organizations are deserving of resources. And then two were kind of wearing people out with these constant asks. So let's centralize how we collect funds and then distribute money based on what the needs of the community are. And that model continues to be kind of core and crucial to what United way is. Now. We continue to evolve to take on new challenges, to understand how people want to get involved in community today beyond just giving money. But I think that that is a huge innovation for not just the United way , but for the sector

Speaker 3:

for that time period. But you know, this community centric approach is definitely still an innovative today in some ways. Absolutely. Well, so Edwin , you recently took on the role of VP of innovation, but you have held a few other innovation titles in your time at the United way. What was this career path and how did your past jobs prepare you for this one?

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I mean, I'm, I'm currently at my second United way organization. I started at a local United way of eight staff and now I'm at United way worldwide, our , our global leadership organization. And , um, I'm also on my eighth title in the 12 years I've been with [inaudible] .

Speaker 3:

Wow. Eight titles and 12 years.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. You know, one every one and a half years just about, that's pretty good. Um, so I've moved around laterally a lot in the organization. I enjoy taking on opportunities that , um, we kinda didn't really know existed. But as we started to poke around the edges of , uh, what could be, what could be possible for our customers, what could make life better for people in communities, there are sometimes these gaps in what the organization is currently doing and what we could be doing. But I've been in the resource development that's the fundraising arm of United way. I've done community impact, which is the work on the ground where you work with nonprofit partners to deliver services to people who need them and move to the United way worldwide. And I've really focused on marketing, young adult engagement, millennials. And over time we started to realize, well, we really need to have an innovation function here at United way. We've , we're innovative, but we need to have , uh, some leadership dedicated to this work. And the person who moved into the VP role at that time was , uh, an incredible leader, Mike Brooks. And I definitely wanted to follow, Mike didn't know a ton about what the innovation role would be, but knew that the work would be important and that I'd enjoy it. So that's how I got into innovation at United way. And I think those other experiences helped me understand a little bit more of the business case behind all the different innovation projects that we're leading today.

Speaker 3:

Well, it's interesting, so like you would work in, you know , fundraising or in the community leadership and [inaudible] and so it was seeing those gaps and , and wanting to fix them. That sort of set you up for like joining this innovation path then. Absolutely. So what's something that you learned about innovation that you didn't know before you started in these roles?

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I think the biggest aha moment was realizing innovation isn't just about being the most creative person in the room. I kind of thought we would just put on the turtlenecks and

Speaker 3:

come up with ideas.

Speaker 1:

Well marker boards. Exactly. Um, but really the, the big aha moment has been innovation is about core understanding of the business and of the environment around you. And that's been really helpful because it helps you funnel the energy of those who are sure that innovation is about being the most creative person in the room. But you can always map back to the things that are , um, the most important ideas scale set up, meeting with , uh, with Whitney where she was asking the tougher questions about what are you really trying to accomplish with the platform, what's the business outcome that you're trying to achieve? And that was another kind of trial by fire moments where we, we all realize, you know, this isn't about cool ideas. This is about the work, the organization, the sustainability of what we're doing in communities.

Speaker 3:

Well, so a lot of technology or new trends have unintended impacts in many sectors, but in the nonprofit sector as well. Can you think of an emerging trend that's influencing the United way to change? And how are you responding to that one?

Speaker 1:

I would say the most critical, and it's not even an emerging trend at this point. Uh , the most critical change in the modern economy is the use of data and data. Today there's a documentary on Netflix that says data is more valuable than oil. And I believe it based on the way companies are able to disrupt entire industries just because they're focused on having slightly more data and a little bit better technology to put that data into action. And , uh, there's a few different ways that that affects nonprofits. The is, we're not just competing and competing is not the right word, cause we tend to partner with our other nonprofit organizations, but we're not competing for eyeballs among nonprofits. We're competing for attention with Amazon and Netflix and Facebook and to cut through the noise. We can't assume people will say, well, they're nonprofit and then I'm going to pay attention to this video because they're [inaudible] .

Speaker 3:

Right. The virtue of their message is enough. Right.

Speaker 1:

And I wish that was ,

Speaker 3:

yeah.

Speaker 1:

Uh, so we have to get better at using data, understanding how that can affect , uh, both the supporters of United way and the people who we'd like to serve, making sure that we're investing the same time and energy , uh, into helping somebody better their lives that we would helping them pick out a video to watch tonight when they get off of work. Right. The second issue is we see this consolidation of , uh, of money, of resources with just a few firms that have the biggest headstart in data and technology. And I can't think of a better example than a few years ago. I think it was last year in January, Amazon released their Amazon go grocery store. I think we actually have one coming to DCC, which I'm pretty excited about. Uh , because it's, it's a grocery store where you can walk in, you don't have to talk to a cashier. It just knows what you've picked up. By virtue of you being in the store and you being an Amazon prime member and you don't have to pay at a cashier or anything, you just walk out and it charges you effectively. And so as an introvert, I'm like, I'm all for it.

Speaker 3:

No friction whatsoever.

Speaker 1:

Amazing. Uh, but at the same time, you have to think about the change that would make in jobs and , uh , the challenges that that would create for people in our communities. And it's a, it's an incredible innovation. There's no doubt about that. But the, the market the next day rewarded , uh, Amazon so much that Jeff Bezos made like two point $8 billion in wealth in one day, just from the increase in Amazon's stock price because of this new , uh, this, this new kind of store. And it's, it's kind of scary because that's almost as much as the United way ma raises in a year that somebody made in one day. And the rewarding him for essentially eliminating the most common job in the United States of America according to the Bureau of labor statistics. So we have that other side of innovation and disruption from data that we have to grapple with. And of course I'm not anti-technology or anti , um, innovation or , yeah, you know, the cat's out of the bag. We want to make sure that we are , um, celebrating the great work that's happening. But at the same time, we just want to make sure that , um, we're , we're working with the same urgency to make sure data is an asset for us as well.

Speaker 3:

Well, I mean, you already knew that I was going to ask you about data because I know that you're addicted to data and I've seen you presents on it. So what is one thing that you've learned to do differently because of the data?

Speaker 1:

So early on in our , uh, our crowdsourcing efforts with idea scale, we noticed that , uh, through Google analytics, we noticed that people were coming to the community and they weren't necessarily coming back immediately. So unless we had like a really grabby challenge that was happening, people were visiting, they'd say, Oh, this is cool. They vote a bit and then they'd go on their way. So we instituted a three email series. And so every Friday after you log into the idea of scale platform , um, for the first time you would receive an email, just prompting you with a couple other actions you can take. Whether it's voting on an idea or you know, coming in and making a comment or submitting an idea of your own. And for those three weeks , um, the person is invited to come back to the platform. And so we saw a nice increase in , uh , user retention over week, week by week, which was , um, which was the goal that kind of validated that the email series was working in our favor.

Speaker 3:

The increasing the frequency of the communication was what it took to bring people back. Yeah. So for me it's very difficult to conceive of coordinating innovation across more than 1200 locations. Tell me about us. Tell me about a time where like a far away idea was able to, you know, make it to leadership and be utilized by everyone. I think,

Speaker 1:

and this is one of my favorite, you know, crowdsourcing to actual idea or product concept. From our experience so far, I was in a meeting with a group of United ways and I was there to pitch them on using idea scale to surface their good ideas and get them back to United way worldwide. But during that meeting they were talking about millennial engagement and somebody showed us a demo for this project that they were doing on a very small scale in their local community. And it was just getting people to write a note of encouragement to one of the people that United way has served. And it was a digital tool. They actually printed the notes physically and deliver them to the person, but then delivered back to the individual , um , a video by texts or email to let them know, you know , that the note was received. It was appreciated. And from seeing that I, I went back home, I just kept ruminating on the idea and I asked them if I could put it in idea lab, that's our idea scale platform on their behalf. And they said yes and it quickly got more votes than anything else. It quickly got more comments and people were like, wow, this is really cool. Uh, and from there we turned it into a product that we actually deliver to our corporate partners. And so they can deliver it to their employees, including their remote employees who are typically kind of hard to engage and they get a chance to understand the United ways impact work. Uh , say you'd want to set up a writing note campaign for young people who are on the waiting list to get a mentor. So the Deloitte employees or whatever company's employees, they just write a note of encouragement digitally. We deliver physical notes in real communities and then they get a video back of a child reading a note of encouragement.

Speaker 3:

What a lovely like full circle to build a relationship on a personal level.

Speaker 1:

It really, it closes the loop so nicely. And , uh, we've used this product on our main stage at our conferences. Our , our CEO has spoken to it. Our chief fundraising officer has spoken to it. We've played the videos of kids reading notes on stage. It's amazing. And it just came from being in the right meeting at the right time. But it's the type of innovation that we want to continue to cultivate from our 1200 members.

Speaker 3:

So you're the VP of innovation, but you do have an innovation team that you get to work with. Who could you just not do your job without?

Speaker 1:

Yeah, my team is pretty incredible and I don't want anybody to feel left out. But uh, Lynn [inaudible] on my team is somebody that I've worked with for a couple of years now and she's kind of like the right side of my brain.

Speaker 3:

Okay .

Speaker 1:

Um, she is really incredible. Just uh, I tend to spend a lot of time in the clouds thinking about big picture and as I'm explaining a big concept, she's creating this step-by-step project plans. She's an anthropologist by trade. She's a certified a knowledge manager. So what we do is translate it into what the organization now is because of Lynn and you know, we have just had this great like work husband, work life, work wife relationship. Um, and yeah, I would definitely say Lynn is someone couldn't do without.

Speaker 3:

I think that's a really lovely thing. A lot of people expect innovation, people to have like all the skill sets of one person, but it's like, no, you can have the big dreamer as long as you've got somebody who's going to nail you to the ground from time to time on the same team.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely. I'm all about complimentary skills and yeah , that was one that needed to be filled.

Speaker 3:

So, which of your United way innovation are you most excited about?

Speaker 1:

Hmm . I would say I'm most excited about social weather. And so this is a program from the center of social innovation that's coming next year. But social weather is a GIS platform that uses big data and artificial intelligence to not just help the United ways understand social issues that are happening in their community, but even predict crisis before they emerge. And so we're going to be working with data scientists and a tech platforms on the team. Most important pieces. What do you do with the information and then where does it live? How does it get analyzed? So that's definitely the, the project that I'm most excited about. I mean for obvious reasons. Um, but it also just pushes us to start thinking about United way and the community impact work that we're doing in very different ways . Right .

Speaker 3:

So this is a question that we asked him, almost everybody on our podcast. What does the word innovation mean to you?

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I don't like the definition questions. And I took one of those personality tests and it said that I was a squiggly line. I don't like , uh , definitions are being pinned to the box. Um, I read in a Harvard business review article that innovation is the deliberate process by which you change the potential for a business or an organization. And that's really what I'm thinking about when I think about innovation at United way. It's an incredible organization, 130 plus years old and they've been innovating for a long time. But right now I understand that there is a whole world out there that we can be a part of and that we're, that we're not. And so this is our chance to, you know, leap frog where we think we could have gone if we moved in a linear fashion. And let's just, you know, let's play around in the gray space a little bit.

Speaker 3:

Well, so if you had another piece of advice to give to an innovation leader up and coming like yourself who's just getting started, what would that advice be?

Speaker 1:

That's a great question. I would say my best advice would be focused on creating value for the people around you in your organization. We have a big agenda on our team for next year. Our , our team's calling has completely changed in the last few months, but one thing that we're really, really focused on is making sure we have some small wins lined up so that the people that we work with most often are the people that we ask for stuff most often that they feel like we're making progress, that they feel like we're delivering value to them. And that's, that's what I would recommend is go for the big swings, go for the moonshots, but also focus on creating some value early on with some small wins as well.

Speaker 3:

Right? There are multiple horizons for innovation, right? So, and it's okay to do the incremental innovation. You can also bring in the adjacent and transformational at the same time.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely. 1% better. It's still better.

Speaker 3:

Well, thank you so much for joining our podcast today, Edwin. I think some of the stuff that you're working on, you know, even from the personalization for those notes to the community, things like social, whether it's really great work and I'm really excited to that you took the time to share your story. Thank you.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely. Thank you for having me.