There’s a famous tech story about Steve Jobs related to innovation.

One day he walked up to a developer’s desk and he placed a manila envelope on it. Then he said to the developer, “Make me a computer that fits in that.”

What came out of that moment?

The Macbook Air.

Your Manila Envelope

I’ve often written about Steve Jobs because he was a visionary. I also love that particular story because of its bold audacity. Jobs knew that his products had to be easy to use, elegant and innovative game changers. He wasn’t looking to incrementally build on what had been done before in technology.

He was looking to innovate.

So, here’s my question for you. If you’re the executive director or founder of a nonprofit, think about your cause for a moment. If you’re a good executive, you probably know a lot about your cause. You know all of the reasons why the situation exists. You know what the industry, your competitors and what you’re doing programmatically to make a difference.

Now, think of that manila envelope being placed on your desk.

My first question to you is this: If someone said to you to create a “computer” that could fit inside of a manila envelope, what would you create?

Questions to Ask

More than likely you don’t have an answer in that moment to the question of what you would create to place inside of the manila envelope. But, here’s your chance to innovate and do something that is outside the proverbial box. Some questions you might want to ask yourself to help you figure out the situation are as follows:

  1. What’s the societal problem you solve?
  2. Why is it important to solve it?
  3. Do you think your organization–and you–can come up with the answer to solve and eradicate the issue? (Think of the manila envelope).
  4. Why do you think your organization can do it? Does it have the best resources? Most money? Expertise?
  5. If you could only choose one project to work on that would help you innovate a solution to your cause, what would it be?
  6. What areas of your nonprofit are the strongest and which are the weakest?
  7. What is preventing you in your organization from achieving that level of success? And a second part of this same question is how do you get rid of the situation?
  8. Provided you come up with the innovation that will change your industry, how do you define success?
  9. How can you get others (board, donors and your team) to follow the vision you’re creating, even if it doesn’t yet exist? How do you “paint the picture?”
  10. How can you provide value to the people (board and donors) that will invest in the product that you’ve created?

Next time you’re sitting in your office, remember the story of Steve Jobs and the manila envelope. He instinctually knew that to grow his customer base and gain market share, he had to create a computer that did not exist. What are you going to do in your industry to create your version of the Macbook Air?