Our founders were disrupters – have we lost that disruptive spirit?
Innovation is based on the core principle that the present solution may not be the best or only way to approach a problem. An innovator seeks to find a better way, which often involves disrupting the status quo. Innovation also involves focusing on the impact you can make, working in collaboration and thinking differently. So to those who have founded charities, I take my hat off to you as disruptive innovators who weren’t prepared to accept the current situation. Yet, many charities have lost that disruptive spirit and restless drive to explore bold new approaches and have instead settled for ‘safe’.
In my experience, innovation is rarely seriously driven as an organisational imperative. For those organisations that are serious about innovation, for example Save the Children, where innovation sits at the very heart of its theory of change (Innovate, Replicate, Advocate and Scale), it has played an enormous part in enabling their recent growth. However, the general apathy to innovation leaves the sector missing a huge opportunity to truly collaborate and bring together finite resources in order to accelerate change and leverage greater impact. RNIB is one such organisation which has nailed its colours to the mast, challenging other organisations working with and for people living with sight loss that by taking a collective approach there is an opportunity to more effectively serve and represent the interests of visually impaired people.
Innovation, where it does exist in the sector, more often than not is linked to one department, for example, fundraising, communications or campaigning. ‘Let’s brainstorm some brilliant new ideas to create more awareness, a stand out campaign or to inspire greater giving.’ Frankly, I would expect that to be the basics of any good fundraising, communications or campaigning teams work. Only, in a very few instances are the talents and skills of innovation teams (that is in the few cases where they do exist) used to disrupt and rethink the wider organisational challenges and the bigger question of how to deliver greater impact.
Many commercial organisations actively explore collaboration as a business strategy and are doing so through a model of open innovation; seeking out new solutions to intractable problems from employees, customers and the general public. Others will go so far as to seek out start-ups and invest in them to bring new concepts to scale. And others do so through making social investment and creating social enterprises to deliver social good through profit.
Charities appear slow to adopt such principles of openly engaging with their stakeholders and indeed, where causes overlap, engaging with each other to solve the challenges that their founders committed to addressing to both supporters and beneficiaries.
Remember a Charity is one remarkable example of charities coming together to disrupt, addressing the challenge of increasing the number of people who include a charitable gift in their Will. Given that people choose to support more than one cause in their Will, this increase is only possible if done so collectively. When resources are brought together and focused around a common goal magic can take place and change can happen.
Disruption changes the conversation, the approach and the outcome.
Consider what impact might flow from the recent announcement of £250M investment into dementia research with £50M each coming from The Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK further amplified with an additional £150M from the UK Government; creating the UK’s first dementia research institute. Yet examples such as these are still few and far between. As a sector I think we must develop a much more open attitude to collaboration and co-creation and through this we can and should develop a model which finds a way to focus our finite resources in a more effective manner.
When you cast an eye across various charities mission statements or core values, ‘innovation’ and ‘collaboration’ are often sited and expressed, yet seem to only apply to our working together internally. The world has moved on and today we must also look outside our charities and build the widest possible ecosystems from which great new solutions will come.
So, despite good intention, why do we so often fail to deliver on innovation?
How often do we challenge ourselves to ask ‘What if?’ or ‘How might we make more impact?’ or better still, ‘How might we better tackle the problem that we exist to solve?’ When these questions are left unasked and thus unanswered it ensures the status quo and ‘playing it safe’ prevails. And safe precludes anyone having to take accountability for change. Furthermore, it leaves charities using income as a yardstick for success when the real measure of success is impact.
Innovation as a side project, buried in the corner of a singular directorate will ultimately fail. Executive teams and more importantly boards must take active long-term responsibility for innovation and deliberately drive a culture of learning and risk management, which gives teams permission to try to, yes, dare I say it, fail. I had the privilege of working with Tanya Steele (Executive Director for Marketing, Communication & Fundraising at Save the Children) who would often make the observation that if there wasn’t failure along the way then we weren’t trying hard enough for children.
Three horizons innovation
The three horizons’ innovation model illustrates how businesses should be looking at short, medium and long-term horizons. How many organisations and charities are really looking across all three? And when they do, is there room for that strategic debate? Or, is it that the long-term horizon is simply given lip service as it’s beyond the time that anyone here today will still be there to be accountable for? In my experience, short-termism still largely prevails. From a fundraising perspective, short-termism is suicidal. Growth can only be derived from having a long-term strategic direction, sustained investment and operational and fundraising strategies that are truly aligned.
Pedal faster and all will be well. I have news. It won’t and it isn’t. However, I believe we are seeing the first glimpse of a future where we will have to work ever harder to do more with a greater appreciation that our supporters give by their choice not because we want them to.
This means that charities will need to really look at ‘the why’, ‘the how’, ‘the who’ of what they do. They will need to look to collaborate with and combine resources and in some circumstances merge the mission in order to leverage greater impact and in the process streamline operations.
Trustee boards, need to get more actively involved at a strategic level, that is, forging strong working relationships with their executives to ensure their charity is truly looking across each of the three horizons. They must actively question what is required to deliver and solve the charities mission and tick the box that states:
‘That today (insert date) the board of (insert name of charity) can report that we have successfully delivered to our founder’s mission of (insert detail) which means that we can thank all donors and advise them due to their support (insert name of charity) is no longer required to be in existence’.’
I personally think every charity boardroom should have a statement of this nature on the wall to remind everyone involved that the core goal is to no longer be required. That our mission is to solve the problem that we exist to solve and that all our actions must focus on making that possible. Because, if you are not doing this you are in the business of playing it safe.
I believe that it is only the charities that live and breathe the disruptive spirit of their founders, and are prepared to continue to disrupt in whatever way required to achieve their mission (which could mean changing existing business models) are the ones that will command support.
I’d love to know your thoughts.
Iain McAndrew is an instigator and change catalyst who challenges organizations to think big and strategically to transform their fundraising and the impact they make.