Creating a Culture of Creative Risk-Taking

I was at a creative strategy meeting recently with a large nonprofit organization, and we were discussing the need to re-position the organization in the digital age. But an employee brought up a issue that had plagued them in the past. Since the beginning they’d been driven by a philosophy of “dollar in/dollar out.” In other words, they felt that for every dollar spent at the ministry in whatever area—especially creative and marketing—it needs to generate a donor dollar back in.

I was about to bring up why that’s a deadly philosophy for organizations when one of their leaders finally spoke up. She remarked (with a certainly amount of exasperation) that a dollar in/dollar out philosophy was what has always held them back. The result of that thinking was they had always thought small because they couldn’t possibly take the risk of new or innovative ideas that might fail. She finally pleaded that until the team was willing to take creative risks, they’ll never see how far they can go, or how big they can grow.

I couldn’t have said it better.

One of the ideas that helps the most successful and fast growing churches, ministries and nonprofits is having a virtual research and development lab within the organization. In a digital age, where technology, how we communicate, and a changing culture is transforming everything, it’s more important than ever to cultivate a culture of creative thinking. The willingness to invest time and resources into an R&D lab to constantly push the envelope makes enormous sense.

For instance, Google allows their employees 20 percent of their time to develop personal side projects; Life.Church has hosted “hack-a-thons” where they gather top programmers and give them a day to develop a new app to solve a problem. However, in most cases, church and ministry leaders talk about the importance of learning from failure, but never allow employees to actually experience it.

So I talked to an old friend Rob Hoskins, who’s president of one of the most innovative ministries I know—OneHope in Pompano Beach, Florida. Rob referred me to Liam Savage, OneHope’s innovation designer. (Yes—the ministry has an “innovation designer” on their team.) Here’s what Liam shared with me:

“The first example is about our internal process, at OneHope. We formed the innovation team around the idea of a dedicated team to solve problems nobody else had the expertise to solve. We are essentially a learning team, and we come alongside other teams to help them gain clarity when operating in unfamiliar areas.

“We have a few services we offer, one is a Google Venture style experience for ministry opportunities. The process is a highly structured and facilitated five days where we design and test a prototype with the target customer. Another service is called an “Immerse” where we also lean heavily on IDEO’s Human-Centered Design, and do immersive research in the field—with customer interviews and observation—and capture stories that help us understand why something is working or not working, or what problems a customer has that they themselves wouldn’t be able to articulate.

“The second example is external. I’m a part of the leadership team with Indigitous, which is a network of people passionate about faith and technology. There are many different manifestations of what that looks like, everything from Christian co-working spaces as entrepreneurship and outreach, to developing digital evangelism strategies, to theology for Silicon Valley. Everyone who joins has a slightly different approach, but it all centers on helping the church meaningfully engage with technology.

“YouVersion is also taking part. Indigitous hosts a global hackathon called #HACK every year, and I believe we’ve had over 80 cities participate over the past three years. These events are usually hosted by churches, university students, Christian business owners or non-profits who invite a broader audience of coders and designers and each location produces several solutions to the challenges issued by the host organization, the community, or the global challenges we face.”

Internal and external—both ways OneHope has created the opportunity to experiment and innovate.

The question is—whatever situation you’re in—how could you better empower your team to experiment? It may be with a local evangelism campaign, internal communications, evaluating projects, volunteer training, media—any number of areas could benefit from this kind of free-flowing, no pressure experimentation.

Dawn Nicole Baldwin, who leads our communication and growth strategies at Cooke Pictures, offered a good reason so many churches and ministries fail to innovate like OneHope is doing:

“What holds many organizations back is simply being afraid of failure (because others are watching). We think we don’t have enough resources to do it, but in reality our challenges with time, people or money are more often our mind-set. Plus, it’s not just leaders who don’t allow employees to experiment. Oftentimes it’s the congregation, elders, board and others who make it hard for the leader.

“The bottom line is that if the marketplace feels innovation is important for something as trivial as laundry detergent, shouldn’t we experiment when so much more is at stake?”

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Phil Cooke
Phil Cooke

Phil Cooke is a filmmaker, media consultant and founder of Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles, California. His latest book is Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative When the Clock is Ticking. Find out more at