Stewart Severino – Harnessing Innovation in the Nonprofit Sector

“The best piece of advice an early mentor gave me was ‘You’re never going to know everything and that’s OK’.” -Stewart Severino

[00:00:00] Stewart Severino: The leader that sits at the helm is going to have to be really intentional about how they look for that specific talent and they need to structure their departments or their organizations in that manner, in order to really stretch those dollars.

[00:00:13] Stewart Severino: You have to be a strong financial steward nowadays. There’s no reason not to be right with the talent that we have out there, so my suggestion to leadership is to stop building empires and start building communities.


[00:00:25] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Stewart Severino, the Head of Innovation for The Navigators.

[00:00:34] Tommy Thomas: As of recent, one of the podcasts I’ve added to my feed is Purpose and Profit Podcast hosted by Dave Raley and Carly Berner. Stewart was a recent guest of theirs and listening to that podcast convinced me that I wanted Stewart to share with our audience. So I want to give a big shout out to Dave and Carly for the work they’re doing with Purpose and Profit Podcast.

[00:00:55] Tommy Thomas: So, Stewart, welcome to NextGen Nonprofit Leadership.

[00:00:58] Stewart Severino: Hey Tommy, nice to be here. Thank you.

[00:01:00] Tommy Thomas: So, I have to confess that earlier in my career, maybe 20 years ago, 30 years ago, if you’d asked me about innovation and The Navigators, I’m not sure I would have put those two in the same sentence. But after knowing and working with Doug Nuenke, their most recent former President, it makes total sense now that The Navigators would have somebody at a senior level paying attention to innovation.

[00:01:26] Stewart Severino: That caught my attention too. That was not more than 18 months ago. So, we’re in the same boat.

[00:01:32] Tommy Thomas:  We’re going to talk a lot about innovation in the nonprofit sector and maybe if it’s appropriate, maybe you can share with us some of the exciting things that The Navigators are doing in this area.

But before we go there, I want to go back to your childhood and your upbringing, and maybe learn a little bit about, maybe how that got you to where you are today.

[00:01:53] Stewart Severino: Yeah, you know, that’s an immigrant story. My mom came to the US in the early 70s and she worked in a factory and raised us kids alone. You don’t know any different right, you grew up with friends who were in similar situations inner city in New Jersey, I grew up in Newark.

You know, high school was a good time. There was decent formation there because of, you know, some male coaches. That’s always important. Even though you don’t have a male figure at home, hopefully, you have some male influences in your life. So that helped to shape me early on as a male.

And then, moving out of high school, college began in 1994. I went to a Jesuit university, for a little bit, but dropped out because of the dot com boom in New York City. So that was probably the best decision I made at that time. You know, kids are talking about that today, right? Oh, do we really need college?

[00:02:46] Stewart Severino: We can just get a certification. And that’s kind of what was going on back then. We had to make it up as we went along because we were building it as we were building strategies. So it was an exciting time. And then, I would return later on to academia and complete my degree, my master’s at Dallas Theological Seminary.

[00:03:04] Tommy Thomas: What was high school like? Did you play athletics or, in the band or any of that, anything like that?

[00:03:10] Stewart Severino: Yeah. Wrestled, loved wrestling. The discipline of wrestling, the grit, that kind of physical and perseverance set the pace for what would be my adulthood.

[00:03:25] Tommy Thomas: When you started college in the beginning, were you on a technology track or you in general studies? What was that like studying at the Jesuit university?

[00:03:33] Stewart Severino: Yeah, that’s a good question. I went in as a biology major. I always enjoyed biology and I thought, oh, maybe I’ll get into med school or, I don’t know, something along the healthcare track. But, yeah, that went away pretty quick.

[00:03:48] Tommy Thomas: You mentioned mentoring a little bit and male figures in your life. Who’s been the most influential mentor to you so far?

[00:03:55] Stewart Severino: Oh boy, you know, that didn’t come till much later, maybe till around the age of when I was going back to church. Not that I ever really went, met my wife and she introduced herself as a Christian to me, and I didn’t really recognize that.

Growing up in the Northeast, you either know Catholic or you know Jew, and to hear Christian is a little different. So, going into this church, the senior pastor there really took attention to me and spent week after week with me even before I was a believer. And so I got to give that to him, you know, a really busy man having a relationship as a primary responsibility in his life, to his people. It just spoke volumes.

[00:04:38] Tommy Thomas: What’s the best piece of advice he ever gave you?

[00:04:42] Stewart Severino: He says you’re never going to know everything and be okay with that.

[00:04:48] Tommy Thomas: Good words. Good words. I have a hunch that a lot of people might be like me and not necessarily put innovation and nonprofit sector in the same sentence. Am I right about that? And if so, why? 

[00:05:05] Stewart Severino: That’s a good topic to bring up because I think leadership is being forced to bring it up. Now you can’t escape innovation. You can’t escape AI. I think the phrase innovation is so broad and it has so many different meanings that it needs some real form. It needs some real function, some real definition by leadership.

And yes it’s not at the top of their list but it is being forced to the top of their list because they need to figure out how to do more with very little, especially in a nonprofit space, especially in donor-supported organizations.

[00:05:42] Tommy Thomas: I was talking to Matt Randerson. You may know him, over at Barna, and we’re planning an upcoming podcast on generational influences of the nonprofit sector. So maybe go there for a minute. Have you noticed relative to innovation any differences with the generations in terms of maybe creativity?

[00:06:03] Stewart Severino: You know, you have to start looking at who am I hiring, right?

Typically, my generation, Gen X, or even older, we tend to build empires versus building community. We come in and we want to staff up, right? We want an assistant. We want project managers that you can’t function like that anymore. I still see it happening. It really bothers me what we need to start looking for in our younger generation are those who have hybrid capabilities.

Are you a project manager? Do you have tech capabilities at a minimum? I think this younger generation will have that. And already does have that. I think the leader that sits at the helm is going to have to be really intentional about how they look for that specific talent and they need to structure their departments or their organizations in that manner, in order to really stretch those dollars.

[00:06:57] Stewart Severino: You have to be a strong financial steward nowadays. And there’s no reason not to be right with the talent that we have out there. There’s no reason we don’t have to be, so my suggestion to leadership is to stop building empires and start building communities.


[00:07:13] Tommy Thomas: What about risk-taking from the different generations?

[00:07:17] Stewart Severino: I see more risk-taking in a younger generation. Mainly because they’ve been hearing a narrative of failing fast.

You know, and that comes with the lean startup methods and other innovative practices. So, there’s more room for risk-taking with the younger generation. I think for me, for Gen X or even the boomers, you have your entrepreneurs. You have those risk-takers. I think they are few and far between.

But those of us that are in place of leadership, we’re going to the risk tolerance in moving forward with something that could be seen as risky to the rest of the organization. So, it really depends. It depends on the initiative. It depends on the talent you’re using. It depends on if you have a method.

[00:08:08] Stewart Severino: Do you have a process that is repeatable, that is predictable? You can take a risk, but we’re not asking you to roll the die. We’re asking you to come in, do something different, but do it within a framework. We’re not here to just shoot from the hip or throw things on the wall to see if they stick.

[00:08:29] Tommy Thomas: On your LinkedIn profile, in addition to innovation and nonprofit impact, you have the words scaling and sustainability.

[00:08:37] Stewart Severino: Yeah, it’s one thing to launch successful projects and pilots. It’s another thing to get them to scale. And because now you’re talking throughout the organization, you’re talking about resources. And so, scaling is probably at the top of your list of success.

For example, Navigators. We have this age-old issue, not just Navigators, but all of Christianity. We have this age-old issue of scaling discipleship. You can’t possibly disciple more than one to three people, have a relationship, you know, beyond that. And so scaling discipleship, in this example, has always been an issue.

[00:09:20] Stewart Severino: So how do we solve for that? Back in a day in the 40s, Billy Graham went to Dawson Trotman, who’s the founder of the Navigators. And he said, Dawson, I need your help. We’re bringing 5,000-6,000 people per month to faith, but there’s no follow-up. They’re just coming to the churches, professing their faith and then what? There’s no follow-up, right? It’s like you getting a subscription and then no follow-up subscription, right? There’s no accountability there from the company side. On this side, it would be how do you touch so many people consistently? How do you develop relationships?

[00:09:51] Stewart Severino: And so scaling discipleship on that level is huge. And I’m so excited to be part of that.

[00:09:59] Tommy Thomas: Does that tie in with sustainability?

[00:10:03] Stewart Severino: So, the sustainability is how can you affect a business unit in a way that they continue to function the way they’re supposed to, but also contribute to the whole, can I serve you?

How do I come to you in a department and say, hey, what are your needs? How can I serve you? And through that, we explore efficiencies, and optimization, so you can do your job better, more efficiently, and at a reduced cost while you’re contributing back to the organization as a whole. That’s sustainability.

[00:10:37] Stewart Severino: So, if I to go to a ministry and say, hey, how can I help you at the college level? Oh, well, I can’t touch all of these students that are coming to me. I can only touch a small percentage of these folks. What do I do with the rest? Oh, let me help you with that. Right now, you’re more efficient with your time.

You have more time for your family. You have more time for ministry. And then those people that you couldn’t touch before, they’re being touched through other processes, through other automations, through other efficiencies. That’s sustainability. We’re now affecting two realms. And that one realm that you couldn’t touch before is now contributing back to the whole.  That’s sustainability.

[00:11:22] Tommy Thomas: What are some mistakes that you’ve observed, in the nonprofit sector as people attempt to innovate?

[00:11:29] Stewart Severino: Repeatedly. And I think this is something that requires indoctrination and it’s kind of what I do, right? You have to go around and campaign yourself. This is a person-to-person initiative.

It’s going around shaking hands, kissing babies, being personable, and saying, here is what innovation looks like in a discipline dispelling their previous conceptions or misconceptions of innovation isn’t all that difficult because when you expose them to a disciplined innovation, it really changes the way they view their world.

[00:12:04] Stewart Severino: Typically, they view innovation like, well, I have this issue or we have these goals. Let’s brainstorm. How many times have you heard that? Hey, join me for coffee and let’s go brainstorm. No brainstorming comes later on in the process. In the beginning, it’s understanding. Do we as a team, as an organization have a consensus on what the needs of the audience are?

When you define that need and you have a consensus on it, that becomes your true north. That is your compass. You don’t deviate from it. You don’t pollute it with technology or a process or good ideas that comes later. Let’s stay to the bare minimum. What is your need?

[00:12:47] Tommy Thomas: This is gonna take us back a little bit and some of this stuff may not even be in play these days, I remember the last time I spoke at the outcomes conference at Christian Leadership I used this illustration from the 1980s, the U. S. Army came up with this acronym, VUCA, Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. later on, the Center for Creative Leadership had to come up with their term, RUPT, Rapid, Unpredictable, Paradoxical, and Tangled. Another writer coined the term BANI, Brittle, Anxious, Non-Linear, and Incomprehensible.

And then the people over at Oxford, not to be outdone, they said it was Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel and Ambiguous. Now all of these are addressing external changes. Let’s go there a little bit with external changes, and how you’ve seen them impact the nonprofit sector.

[00:13:44] Tommy Thomas: Have they either contributed or hurt innovation?

[00:13:51] Stewart Severino: External. So, you know, it’s interesting you bring up VUCA. I was trained, I used to work for a consultancy where these guys, were the first top gun pilots there in the first class. And so, they were very efficient when it came to process and organization. So, we’ve worked in the space and you may have heard this on the previous called high-reliability organizations.

  1. R. O. S. And so, the job of these is to minimize or reduce risk in an environment. So external risks on an organization. So how do we do that? How does an aircraft carrier run at such precision? When you have a team of young adults rotating every so often, it’s the process, right?

[00:14:39] Stewart Severino: It’s the discipline of the process that keeps people safe. It keeps people from dying. Think about commercial airliners, think about hospitals, think about oil rigs, right? Think about the military. And so, there’s such high precision, not because they’re awesome, but because they have a type process. And so, for the nonprofit space, what can you do within your organization?

You’ve got to take your time, which each with each department and analyze, hey, show me your process for X, Y, Z, whatever their tasks are. And when you take a deep dive into their process, you’ll quickly understand. They most likely don’t have a process. They probably have a bullet list of items.

[00:15:20] Stewart Severino: Hey, we do this, then we do that. If this happens, then that happens. And that’s okay. That’s a great starting point. But until you fully fleshed out the ifs and thens, and the now what’s in the work process of that particular department, you won’t be able to fully understand what’s going on. The possible risks that are going to come from the outside or even from within the inside, within the organization.

So really taking your time and fleshing out your work process and throwing that word out there, because that’s a real thing, work, process, get to it, use it, incorporate it. It’ll protect you from not just everyday mistakes. Let’s say marketing doesn’t have a work process for their marketing automation campaigns.

[00:16:02] Stewart Severino: We see this a lot when they send emails that you’ve opted out of already. It’s probably because they’re not checking against what’s called a suppression list on the backend. You’re supposed to be suppressed from that. There’s no process that checks for that, right? it’s a silly little example, but I think it works for this model for what I’m trying to say.

So, risk from outside of the organization is just as real as risk from within the organization. And the only way to solve for that is by taking a deep look into the process of each department.


[00:16:32] Tommy Thomas: We’ve all seen the TV show Shark Tank. And I’ve been asking this question a lot lately. If you were a judge on a nonprofit version of Shark Tank where the nonprofits were asking you for early-stage funding. What questions would you need solid answers to before you made that investment?

[00:16:56] Stewart Severino: For a nonprofit, it’s a little different. But first I would say, have you identified the market? Right. Basic question, but I think again, many entrepreneurs, I think many nonprofits jump to solutions, assumed solutions, assumed technologies. But my first question would be, have you identified your market?

And so, you identify your market again by identifying a need. So, I’ll give you an example. If I can identify a market by demographics, that’s typically how most organizations run, especially marketing leaders. They’ll say, give me the demographic data. I don’t know, uh, affluent married couples in their thirties and forties.

[00:17:40] Stewart Severino: Okay. Let’s say this nonprofit focuses on providing marriage resources. All right. If the need of the couple is to have better conflict resolution and better listening skills, well that’s a need, and that need transcends the affluent and the poor. So now we’ve identified a real market, not just affluent, because the poor, or the underprivileged will still consume those resources.

And if you’re offering free resources, that’s only going to make your dashboard of success look even better because you’re bringing in a larger audience. Sure. They may not convert in terms of dollars later on to how you would expect the athlete, but you’re going to have a much bigger audience.

[00:18:26] Stewart Severino: And with a bigger audience, you have a bigger platform. So, you know, my first look is “Have you truly identified a market” and “Do you even know how to recognize a market”?

[00:18:36] Tommy Thomas: If you are creating a dashboard for nonprofit organizations’ overall health what would be some of the dials on your dashboard?

[00:18:47] Stewart Severino: Uh, well, one indication, this is going to sound cheesy. Um, the way to indicate health and organization is to have a healthy organization. So typically, we don’t have HR-related things on our dashboard, right? We don’t have the qualitative information. And I typically stay away from the squishy stuff, right?

I like hard numbers. I like my return on investments. I like my lifetime value in customers. I think we have to start looking at the squishy stuff, like, uh, something similar to an NPS score, not a promoter score. We see companies use this all the time to have their customers judge their brand.

[00:19:30] Stewart Severino: And typically, an NPS score looks like, how likely are you to refer this service to your friend? Scale of one to five, something as simple like that, right? We have CSAT scores, which are customer satisfaction scores. They function the same way. They are qualitative, not quantitative. So, for me on my dashboard, I would love to always have the pulse of the organization’s health, because a healthy organization breeds a healthy organization.

[00:20:01] Tommy Thomas: I always get people to respond to some quotes, usually they’re doing it within the context of, their area of expertise. So, let’s go there for a little bit then. Here’s one from Steve Jobs. Marketing is about values. It’s a complicated and noisy world, and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So, we have to be really clear about what we want them to know about us.

[00:20:31] Stewart Severino: I’m looking for the wisdom in those words. He’s right. There’s a lot of visual noise out there. There’s a lot of audio noise out there.

I think he’s right. I mean, there’s a desire there to stick out. I think that’s every marketer’s challenge. How do you stick out in this noisy world? So yeah, he’s not wrong in that. Obviously, he created Apple. I mean, come on. He did a few things, right? I think if I had an answer to that, um, yes and amen to that all day long, but also, how do we see people, how do we have corporate responsibility beyond the tools we have given to them?

[00:21:17] Stewart Severino: So, you know, iPhone came out in 2007, no real guidelines around ethics. The consumption is wild. And you only see that peaking today. It’s just the addiction to the scrolling is unbelievable. And so, where is the corporate responsibility in launching something and then hand-holding your consumers throughout the process?

Now that may sound, idealistic or naive on some level, but take it beyond Apple and apply that to your nonprofit organization. How much more value, how much more relationship, or how much more relational does your organization look to your audience when you bother to take the time to engage them?

[00:22:06] Stewart Severino:  Beyond just your service as it relates to your service, right? So, looking at the iPhone example again, what if there were some careful pieces of content for parents who decided to give their children an iPad or an iPhone? What would that have looked like today any different? I don’t know, you know, it’s a human condition, but that’s my point is, do we have a corporate responsibility?

[00:22:30] Tommy Thomas: Here’s one from Thomas Edison, genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

[00:22:40] Stewart Severino: How do you respond to that? Genius is 1 percent inspiration. And that’s true, right? When you have an idea, what happens? It’s like a light switch. You didn’t think it through methodically, it just showed up in your brain.

Right? It’s like pop. You may have been processing it for weeks or days or whatever, but at one moment in time, in one second, something popped into your brain. And so that 1 percent is profound. And so, acknowledging that, right? And saying, wow, okay, where did that come from? What do I do with that? Yeah, so the rest of it is a lot of hard work.

[00:23:16] Tommy Thomas: If you never color outside the lines, the picture will never change.

[00:23:23] Stewart Severino: If you never color outside the lines, the picture will never change. I was the worst at coloring, so, the picture always looked different for me, which is what helped me to never stay within the box. So I can appreciate that quote. I had problems with that growing up. I had problems with that in my career It never looked like how my bosses wanted it to look and I suffered for that.

You know, I would jump around I always wanted different experiences. And so, when the guides in your life are saying, hey, longevity, longevity, longevity. When that was being told, there was something that bothered me about that. I said, I understand that. I understand the commitment, but I want variety, variety, variety.

[00:24:07] Stewart Severino: And so, I would take two, three-year stints and rotate. And while you have recruiters shaking their heads at that, I’m like, this is going to serve me well somewhere. Because I have touched just about every vertical there is. And that cumulative experience has really helped the organizations that I have served because I get to borrow from other industries that I would never have touched before.  So, I appreciate coloring outside the lines.

[00:24:38] Tommy Thomas: From Margaret Thatcher, you may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.

[00:24:44] Stewart Severino: Isn’t that our daily challenge? Every day, every time your feet touch that floor, you know, you’re engaging in battle. So, the perseverance that is needed, comes from a strength that’s definitely outside of you.

[00:24:58] Tommy Thomas: Winston Churchill, to improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.

[00:25:07] Stewart Severino: Assuming you can get to a point of perfection, you’d have to change pretty much every single moment.

[00:25:15] Tommy Thomas: Last one, Albert Einstein. Problems cannot be solved on the same level of thinking at which they were created.

[00:25:28] Stewart Severino: Man, you’re just throwing tough ones at me today. You know, and I have to say there’s truth in that because it’s like trying to use finite words to describe an infinite God. You just can’t do it. Right. And that’s why we have faith. That’s why it’s called faith.

[00:25:44] Tommy Thomas: Let’s close this out with a little bit of a lightning round. If you had a do-over in your life, what would it be?

[00:25:53] Stewart Severino: Wow, that’s like saying, hey, which is your biggest regret? How would you start over? Um, I think my biggest do over, my one do over would be, seeking mentors, and trusting in other older males to walk alongside me.

[00:26:12] Tommy Thomas: If you could go back in time and tell a younger version of yourself one thing, what would that be?

[00:26:24] Stewart Severino: I’d have to say, seek humility, seek humility, you know, because a lot of the errors in my life have been because of pride.

[00:26:48] Tommy Thomas: Is there anything about the overall, scope of innovation and organizational leadership that we haven’t touched that you think would be good to include in this conversation?

[00:26:58] Stewart Severino: I think for those that have a deep desire, and a realistic interest in implementing innovation or a department of innovation in the organization, there has to be buy-in. There has to be buying at the top and there has to be a commitment once that individual or those individuals enter into the department, because the last thing you want is that one individual to be introduced and then have to fight an uphill battle.

[00:27:29] Stewart Severino: So, we haven’t really discussed or gotten into what it looks like from a cultural standpoint within the organization, but that’s one of the first things I looked for before taking a role in innovation is saying, do I have support at the top? And what is that going to look like as I get going?

[00:27:47] Stewart Severino: Will I continue to have support or am I going to have opposition or are there others that are just rolling their eyes like, oh, okay, one more thing, you know, that I have to deal with, right? Those are realities and we’re human and we have enough on our plates. And so, these are questions that need to be thoroughly considered.

[00:28:06] Stewart Severino: So, I would say at the highest level, if you’re entertaining having an innovation department, you know, consider how much dedication and support you’re going to give to this role.


[00:28:19] Tommy Thomas: Thank you for joining us today. If you are a first-time listener, I hope you will subscribe and become a regular. You can find links to all the episodes on our website:

[00:28:43] Tommy Thomas: If there are topics you’d like for me to explore my email address is [email protected]. Word of mouth has been identified as the most valuable form of marketing. Surveys tell us that consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all other forms of advertising.

[00:29:07] Tommy Thomas: If you’ve heard something today that’s worth passing on, please share it with others. You’re already helping me make something special for the next generation of nonprofit leaders. I’ll be back next week with a new episode. Until then, stay the course on our journey to help make the nonprofit sector more effective and sustainable.

“If you are in leadership today – You Can’t Escape Innovation!” -Stewart Severino

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