Steal it? Here, take it. Go crazy.

Chronicle of Philanthropy 

Helping Nonprofits Benefit From Fresh Ideas

By Nicole Wallace

Nonprofits that are tackling big questions about their mission benefit greatly from seeking ideas from people outside their organization—including those who work in other fields, says Jeff Leitner. The former advertising executive has started a charity to help organizations do just that. Insight Labs, in Chicago, brings business executives, scholars, government officials, and others together with a charity’s leaders for a three-hour strategy session to thrash out possible solutions to a tough issue the group faces.

“If you take a roomful of people who aren’t directly invested in the solution, that don’t have a connection to either the problem or the solution, you get pretty interesting places,” says Mr. Leitner.

‘Honest and Direct’

The topic of the “lab session” it organized for the Holocaust museum was what the institution’s role should be now that its original goal of creating a national memorial to the victims of the Nazis has been accomplished. The group debated the question of how much the museum should focus on genocides other than the Holocaust in its work and exhibitions. Among the participants: a partner at a management-consulting firm, the head of a national network of nonprofit theaters, and an influential lobbyist.

“You want to make sure your feedback is coming from all different sources,” says Sara J. Bloomfield, the museum’s director. She says that while staff members, donors, and program participants have valuable perspectives, they also have a vested interest in the way the organization currently operates. “The great thing about this was these people came to the table with no expectations from us, and we had no expectations from them,” says Ms. Bloomfield. “Their goal was just to be honest and direct and challenging. I think it’s rare that institutions have those conversations.”

Stealing Ideas

Insight Labs has conducted about two dozen of the events, which are free for charities. Mr. Leitner thinks that’s roughly the number his three-person group can organize annually, but he hopes other organizations will adopt the approach. Mr. Leitner says he recently spoke with representatives from a large company with an active giving program, who started the meeting by saying they planned to steal his idea.

“And I said, ‘Steal it? Here, take it. Go crazy. I’ll write down all the rules I know,’” says Mr. Leitner. “And they were totally flummoxed by that.”