Why are charities struggling to innovate?

27 March 2019 3 min read
Reading Time: 3 minutes

With more and more charities looking externally to innovate, and with social impact organisations now playing such an active role in fundraising – what can charities do to bring a bit of the magic back in-house?

The blockers

There are numerous blockers at play here: from simply not knowing where to start, to fear of board and trustee reactions, and crippling accountability.

Last year independent research looking at eight large charities tried to pinpoint some of the issues stifling progress. Interviewees cited fear, lack of diversity, lack of investment and broader cultural issues as key problems. The culture piece should not be underestimated – the values and behaviours of an organisation being set up to innovate are essential. Teams must be supported to take risks, do things differently and challenge the status quo.  

It’s not uncommon to hear “this is how we’ve always done it” as a justification of the current strategy and a reason for not innovating. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t cut it. If you’re constantly banging your head against the proverbial brick-wall internally, why not first look outside your organisation for some inspiration? What tools and techniques are building success elsewhere?

The power of agility

‘Agile’ is a word that terrifies many within charities – it’s seen as a dark art and something that startups do, not us. In reality, being ‘agile’ is simply a way of working that tries to get things done by going fast and failing quickly. The idea is to test in principal whether something works before fully committing time and resource to a wider project.

A huge proportion of technology businesses now use an agile philosophy across their development teams, working in weekly/fortnightly sprints. Many organisations are going further than development and taking an ‘agile’ approach with teams across the business.

If your charity isn’t quite ready to use the framework in its entirety, why not just take a few guiding principles? For example:

  • Identify a problem or area for improvement within the organisation and then run a serious of small tests to try a variety of potential solutions. Inviting in stakeholders from across the business to gain different perspectives can be particularly useful.
  • Make time to get together regularly to discuss progress, share learnings and problem solve as a group (make everyone feel part of the process).
  • Most important of all, remember that it’s ok to fail – the beauty of doing this over a short window of time is that  you’ve not wasted masses of resources. If it’s not worked just stop, re-group and start again. Every failure is beneficial in that you’ve learnt something.

It’s ok to ask for help

If you’re struggling to find like-minded stakeholders for change in your organisation, why not approach some third parties who you can use to spark ideas? Use your charity status for benefit – many individuals will volunteer time to a charity if asked in the right way, so why not put out a few cheeky requests? There are a huge number of digital agencies, design/UX agencies, software businesses, developers and insight businesses that could add massive value.  

Take inspiration from fast-growth social impact startups

With Generation Z already showing a huge passion for social causes, it’s no wonder that there’s been a rise in social enterprises with young founders. But what impact are these social entrepreneurs having on the charity sector?

Founded by Polly Gilbert and Katie Whitlock, (colleagues at infamous Ad agency JWT) TAP London hit headlines last year. The two friends recognised that their generation were ‘cashless’; afraid of the implications this might have on rising homelessness in London, they set about creating a solution. TAP technology makes it effortless for consumers to tap their bank card at specific touchpoints to donate money directly to a selection of homeless charities.  

Another example is Percent, founded by Henry Ludlam, which continues to challenge the preconception that profit and purpose are binary. His social enterprise allows conscious consumers to raise money for the causes they believe in, simply by spending with designated ‘percent retailers’. With partners as high profile (and widely used) as deliveroo, Bill’s and Carluccio’s the concept is bound to get some real traction.

The common-denominator between these two social impact startups is quite simple – the concepts are built to solve a problem (based on insight) and the execution is effortless for the consumer.

The takeaways?

Charities can take forward many learnings from these young startups:

  • Think first about the problems you need to solve, gain insight, talk to people and map a true journey to the solution.
  • Have no fear, Gen Z doesn’t so why should you? Be brave, don’t be afraid to try – remember failure is a good thing it equals learnings!
  • Find your eco-system of like minded people in your organisation to collaborate with.

Lastly, if you want someone to bounce ideas off, gather additional insight from or just have a coffee with, remember our door is always open.