Can charities learn to be innovative?

Georgina PictureIn the last few years we have seen the word ‘innovation’ used more and more regularly throughout the charity sector. Innovation teams have been created to try to stay ahead of industry trends to enable charities to adapt quickly and most effectively to change.

So what does it mean to be innovative in the charity sector?

I recently went to a conference on innovation in fundraising hosted by Guess2Give. Having worked in a small charity, I was initially sceptical. More often than not, small fundraising teams simply don’t have the time or resource to commit to coming up with new, let alone innovative, ideas. At the end of the discussions my scepticism thinned but I still had questions; why must charities be reminded to be innovative when by nature their purpose is to bring about change? Does being non-profit mean you cannot commit the time to internal development? What will happen to those charities that don’t innovate?

In Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk on the way that we think about charitable giving, he argues that the emphasis is placed on income to expenditure ratios and not enough time is spent on the size of the change being brought about. He argues that a culture has been created amongst charities to have such low overheads that no investment is made to enable them to grow, better their impact and widen their breadth of change.

Working in the charitable sector, I know that there is a long way to go before funders will fund risky projects before more standard activities. Our CEO Michelle Wright wrote about this here, but this just makes me feel that we need to push even harder to ensure that charities invest in developing new ideas. When Pallotta argues “if you kill innovation in fundraising, you can’t raise more revenue. If you can’t raise more revenue…you can’t possibly solve large social problems,” you realise the significance of innovation to enable charities to succeed.

What really seems to be the case is that charities commit time to innovating in programme development, but often their approach to fundraising is incredibly traditional. Are the organisations that are getting ahead those that manage both? Here are some examples I’ve been impressed by:

  • A national example is The Children’s Society who, when noticing their stagnant fundraising, asked their supporters what they wanted. They found a desire for a clearer understanding of what they were supporting. The solution was to create “mobile, web, app and widget technology to give supporters a real-time thank you and update on the difference their donation is making”[1] Resulting in corporate partnerships with The Giving Lab and Sky Media as well as an £120,000 award to cover staff, technology design and overheads.
  • An international example is Charity: Water who came to my attention when I met their Director of Digital, Paull Young at a talk he was doing in London. They have managed to cement complete clarity in what they do, to bring clean water to those who need, and in their fundraising, which is to be wholly transparent, digital and to ensure 100% of public funding goes directly to their projects. An impressive goal but with $33 million raised in their 6th year, 2012, they seem to be getting ahead.

How do you think charities can effectively innovate and which campaigns do you think have been most innovative?


[1] Innovations in Giving, Nesta

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