Many nonprofits think of innovation as a luxury they can’t afford. Staff time and budgets are limited, and improving the way they use technology seems out of reach. But technology can offer straightforward, inexpensive means of providing higher quality services, and create numerous opportunities to do more with less—even in our current economic climate. Which makes innovation something organizations can no longer afford not to embrace.

When we think about innovation, we often envision cutting-edge technology that’s flashy, shiny and futuristic—things like jet packs, flying cars and computers that integrate with our homes. But our research shows many nonprofits successfully using technology to innovate in more subtle ways. While these solutions may not be as eye-catching as a jet pack, they’re often both low-cost and effective, which makes them easier to implement—and easier for other organizations to replicate.

MAP for Nonprofits and Idealware completed six months of research that began with a survey asking 180 human service organizations in Minnesota about the technologies they were using and the different ways they applied technology to improve their service delivery. Through detailed follow-up interviews with staff members from 13 nonprofits whose survey answers suggested the kinds of solutions in which we were interested, we discovered some remarkable stories of innovation in unexpected ways.

One small organization, for example, is using text messages to communicate with teens who participate in a mentoring program. A staff member observed that, while all the teens carried cell phones and used them frequently, few would answer phone calls or emails, and her simple, free solution has substantially increased the number of teens who attend their programs. In another example, a domestic abuse organization created a new report in an existing system to provide information to external parole officers who had been reliant upon staff members, transforming the relationship from time-consuming hassle to a real partnership. A third nonprofit designed a system that helps local organizations pool shared data to better understand how each community member is served across the different providers.

Can your organization replicate these kinds of results? We think the answer is a resounding “yes.” Many nonprofits can better connect their needs with technology to improve the ways they serve constituents, we believe, and our research shows that such solutions don’t require a huge investment or in-depth planning process. The data from our study revealed several elements common to organizations who used technology successfully.

First, it’s critical to understand your organizational needs in order to identify possible inefficiencies, problems or other opportunities for improvement. Second, you need to be aware of the technologies available to you—those that you might already have, and other affordable solutions relevant to your needs. Third, make a concerted effort to actually connect your needs with a technology to determine what’s likely to be a useful and cost-effective solution. And finally, innovation will fail without support—make sure your organization is on board with the change, and that sufficient resources are available to see it through to completion.

How do these steps look in action? Let’s go through them one by one.

Understand Your Needs

Necessity was the inspiration for innovation for the vast majority of Minnesota nonprofits in our survey—their solutions were often logical extensions of what they were already doing rather than the result of an in-depth planning process. In general, IT staff was not particularly necessary to the innovation, and in many cases, successful projects were implemented without any substantial IT skills.

But don’t expect the inspiration for innovation to drop out of the sky. Think through what needs to be fixed at your organization, and what could be improved, to prime yourself to recognize opportunities as they are revealed. For example, one organization knew it wanted to offer more classes statewide, but didn’t have the resources to pay for all the travel that would entail—when staff heard about other organizations using Skype for training, they recognized a possible solution to their own need.

Understanding your needs will help ensure that any technology solution you embrace will address the actual issues facing your organization and constituents and keep you from jumping on the next big technology bandwagon that passes by.

Know What Technology Is Available

Many nonprofit organizations feel they don’t have the time or the money to stay up-to-date on technology. It’s not important to know the ins and outs of every new thing, but to find the solutions that can help you innovate, you need to be generally aware of what’s out there. What are other organizations talking about? What comes up at conferences and workshops? Once you’ve scratched the surface, you may well find more approachable and affordable options than you thought—potentially, right in your own office.

It’s possible for organizations to improve or innovate using a little creativity rather than purchasing a new and expensive piece of technology. Several organizations we spoke to were able to solve a problem with existing software by using a function or feature they didn’t know it had, or by leveraging the software in a new and different way.

And a number of organizations are committed to helping nonprofits understand what technologies might be helpful to them. In fact, this article is the result of three of them—take at the resources offered by MAP for Nonprofits, Idealware and NTEN.

Connecting the Needs to Technology

Some problems have easy solutions, but don’t assume that technologies to fill the gaps you’ve identified will be obvious. In fact, the majority of people we spoke with were inspired by, or had support from, people outside their own organizations—peer sharing, seminars and funder support all helped them get their creative juices flowing. One person said she was inspired to implement a whole new eLearning program after attending a conference where she was involved with a peer-learning group that helped her understand that possibility.

You could also think through possible methods to connect your needs to the technology you already have—for example, create lists of possible needs and existing technologies within your organization, and then randomly select potential pairs to try to spark inspiration? This idea of pairing dissimilar items to create a third is a familiar business-world exercise to spark creativity, and could provide a fun workshop for program staff—and may result in an unexpected solution.

Make the Change Happen

Unfortunately, you’ll need more than an idea to successfully innovate—in many cases, you’ll also need time and money to implement it. We don’t have a silver bullet or magic wand for funding issues, but we can tell you that a lot of useful technologies—including mobile texting, video conferencing and social networking, to name just a few—don’t cost very much. If you don’t think you’ll be able to fund a large-scale project, try to come up with useful ideas that won’t break your budget.

Don’t forget that any change that you try to implement will also require staff time and buy-in. Make sure someone is in charge of your new solution and invested in its success. Innovations are meaningless if they’re never used—be sure to educate staff to begin getting them used to the change. Even inexpensive or free solutions will require time to plan, implement and roll-out in order to have a substantial impact.

Finally, don’t forget about measurement. How will you know if your innovation is working? While few of the organizations we spoke with were measuring their innovation in any substantial way, it can help you adapt your innovation to evolving needs—not to mention that showing a positive impact is a great way to get staff and potential future funders on board.

What Success Looks Like

What does a successful innovation look like? The organizations we talked with implemented a wide variety of projects, but almost all were able to mention strong examples of how technology improved their services. In fact, they found considerably more improvement in service quality than cost savings.

Several said their innovation will help provide reports and metrics to guide services and enhance fundraising. A number were using technologies to expand their reach and provide services to people they wouldn’t otherwise be able to connect with. Others were using them to connect with existing constituents in new ways.

In one example, an organization provided smart phones and tablets to enable all field staff to access files, manage their own schedules, and be reachable to clients while out of the office. The change increased efficiency and morale and decreased scheduling issues. And, by being able to access client data remotely, staff is also better able to provide improved care.

Wrapping Up: Putting Innovation to Work

It doesn’t require a massive budget or technology staff to take advantage of the power of technology. There are a number of easily accessible, affordable technologies that can make a real difference in your ability to serve your community. Our research showed organizations using a wide variety of tactics, including providing services through video conferencing, using mobile devices to collect client information, geographic mapping, volunteer recruiting through social networking, communications through mobile texting, and more.

While knowing the technologies available to help your organization is an important step, it’s not the only one. Start with an understanding of your needs and issues, and connect them with the technologies available to you. And don’t forget that solutions always take at least time—and sometimes money—to succeed.

Will you invent the next jet pack? Probably not. But there’s a good chance you can come up with something even better: a cost-effective way to improve the quality of services you provide clients.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the March issue of the NTEN:Change Journal, available free with registration. It summarizes a detailed report Idealware recently completed with MAP for Nonprofits. Sign up now to download your free copy..