Staff Note | Naaima Khan | Understanding Bush Prize winners’ cultures of innovation

February 04, 2020

Naaima KhanThe Bush Prize for Community Innovation has been one of the Foundation’s signature grant programs for the past six years. The intent of the Prize is to recognize organizations that have a culture of innovation and a track record of creating innovative solutions to challenges in their communities. Over the years, several organizations that have received the Bush Prize have contributed to systemic changes ranging from transforming agricultural practices (like Hmong American Farmers Association) to creating an alternative market within food deserts (like Appetite for Change).

Shifting peoples’ attitudes and behaviors tends to be a core strategy in solutions that manage to break through the status quo. But what does it take for an organization to create that type of change, and what does it mean for organizations to have a culture of innovation? Through studying Bush Prize-winning organizations for five years with our evaluation partner, Wilder Research, we have surfaced some common themes of characteristics and practices that allow these organizations to drive innovative changes.

The first key to a culture of innovation is to think bigger about what’s possible. Bush Prize winners often pursue solutions that haven’t been tried before, because they think about root causes and the levers that are critical to shifting how things operate. For example, 2018 Bush Prize winner Native American Community Board takes a multi-pronged approach to ending sexual assault and violence against Native women. In addition to providing direct services to survivors and leadership on policy change, the organization works to address the personal and systemic issues that perpetrators of these crimes are dealing with, like healing trauma.

Other characteristics of organizations that demonstrate a culture of innovation include:

  • Sharing ownership through listening to community members and key collaborators, building relationships and recognizing others’ expertise.
  • Fostering creativity by welcoming ideas from every level of the organization and being proactive about vetting and pursuing them.
  • Learning from failure through actively reframing risks, emphasizing learning in instances of failure and moving forward despite setbacks.
  • Committing to community by engaging community members to develop a shared vision and ensuring that your organization is accurately representing the community.

If you’re interested to dive even deeper into these characteristics and practices, take a look at our 5-year report (PDF) on Bush Prize winners for more examples of how these practices show up in real time.

A critical element of the success of all Bush Prize winners is engaging community members who are impacted by the issues, as well as people working within the systems they’re tackling. Common practices among Bush Prize-winning organizations that help them collaborate with community stakeholders include sharing organizational power, being present in the community, building knowledge and support, co-creating with the community, promoting diverse viewpoints and debriefing with community stakeholders.

If you are considering applying for a Bush Prize, I encourage you to use the Wilder report as a resource and tool. Are these characteristics and practices part of how your organization works? Even if you’re not applying for the Bush Prize, how you could you apply these practices to take new approaches at your workplace?

-Naaima