Adventures in innovation – The Prequel

Published by Lucy Gower on

Fundraising is tough. ‘More for less’ has practically become a daily mantra for both donors and charities. Great causes are clamoring in an increasingly crowded marketplace for a finite piece of the fundraising income pie. Innovation is heralded as the latest buzzword to provide salvation and solutions. ‘We must be more innovative’ is the answer to how to deliver ‘more for less‘.

Trouble is, not many people seem to know what innovation means, least of all how to ‘do’ it. Innovation and its mate creativity are two terms that, in my opinion are somewhat overused. So before we adventure in innovation lets be clear what we mean.

Creativity and innovation

Creativity is the ability to have ideas. It’s what we, as humans all do. We are creative. Fact. We all have a unique range of skills and experiences that we connect together to develop our own creative view of the world. How we express our creativity is also unique, perhaps you are a musician, an artist, a singer, a dancer, a writer, a mathematician or a chef. The point is that the ability to create, whatever it is that you create, is the essence of being human. However, all your creativity and great ideas are pointless unless you do something with them. That’s where innovation comes in.

Innovation is doing something with your idea. Innovation falls into two camps; it can be incremental or radical. Incremental innovation is making changes to an existing product, process or concept. As fundraisers it’s what you do and therefore should be business as usual. It’s essentially about asking ‘why?’ more, challenging the ‘way things are done round here,’ whether its improving your thank you letter, taking time to interrogate your data base, testing a newsletter or a adding a new twist to your annual fundraising event. This sort of innovation isn’t inventing something from scratch. It’s making changes to a product, process or concept that already exists.

A great example of making a change to an existing product is the sand sculptors on London’s South Bank. They dig and craft relentlessly to produce a diverse range of sand art. They draw a circle in the sand and ask passers by to throw their coins into the circle to show their appreciation. One day they tried something different. Instead of the circle in the sand, they put a bell in a bucket and asked people to throw money into the bucket to ring the bell. This changed the game. The donations were no longer about the acknowledgement of the sand sculptures; it was about a crowd competition. People didn’t want to move on until they had rung the bell. The sand artists profits doubled. A small change that made a big difference.

So making a small change that makes a difference, however big (but, lets be honest, the bigger the better) is good news. However, what you are really seeking is something radical, that giant leap that does more than double income. Something so big it changes the fundraising landscape.

You may know the story of Dick Fosbury, Olympic gold medal high jumper. He was the first to jump over the bar backwards. His peers at the time jumped over the bar using a scissor kick style. Fosbury with this new technique didn’t just get a little bit higher over the bar but smashed previous records. At the 1968 Summer Olympics the crowd watched Fosbury’s technique in awe as it looks so, well frankly, weird. Fosbury changed the game and now all high jumpers jump in the Fosbury Flop style.

That’s what you should really be about; fundraising that changes the fundamental way things are done.

So where do good ideas come from?

Steven Johnson in his book ‘Where good ideas come from?’ says “ideas are a series of previously unconnected connections”. Innovation is not about a lone genius sat in a room inventing stuff. Good ideas are often slow hunches that have been in people’s heads for ages fuelled by making a series of connections, and often helped along by curiosity and perseverance.

Back in the 1960s in suburban London a mathematicians’ son loved reading encyclopaedias. His favourite was a Victorian encyclopaedia called ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’ filled with etiquette tips on all you needed to know about modern living. A decade later as an apprentice he was working as a software consultant in a Swiss research lab. He was also tinkering on a side project, an application to allow him to keep track of data. He called it Enquire – after the Victorian encyclopaedia. It never quite became anything. Ten years later he was still plugging away with his passion for data, this time connecting documents on different computers. The mathematicians’ son was Tim Berners Lee who had been quietly putting connections together for 20 years before he invented the World Wide Web.

So forget the Eureka moment and think of innovation more as a slow hunch and a series of unconnected connections.

So that’s all great stuff. You are clear on the difference between innovation and creativity, and the difference between incremental and radical innovation as well as the theory that ideas are a series of previously unconnected connections.

But the challenge is how do you DO innovation? How do you develop your own personal creative ability and that of the organsiations you fundraise for? How do you deliver more for less through innovative thinking? How do you increase your share of the fundraising pie? Or if you are going to be radical; How do you bake a bigger pie?

To find out come back soon for “Adventures in Innovation – Part 1”.

Lucy Gower

Lucy has been a fundraiser for over 10 years and is passionate about innovation and how it can transform organisational and individual performance. Lucy is an independent trainer and consultant specializing in innovation in fundraising. Lucy also blogs for fundraising website sofii.org and is a conference speaker both in the UK and overseas.


Ellen · June 30, 2011 at 14:42

Hi Lucy,

great blog, thanks! Looking forward to read your follow-up on this one!
On this same topic, right now I’m reading ‘The Future of Nonprofits, Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age’, hope during the holidays I will find the time to finish reading it. Maybe a nice tip for you too?
best wishes,

    Lucy Gower · June 30, 2011 at 20:42

    Thanks Ellen

    I have that on my wish list – love to know what you thought of it…

    Best wishes


David Cravinho · June 30, 2011 at 16:11

Hi Lucy,

Thanks for a really interesting blog.

Some great examples to encourage looking at what we do in fresh and bold way. It’s probably worth stressing the point that innovation is hard to achieve in isolation without the right environment to foster it. That’s why companies like Apple, Microsoft, etc invest in chill-out areas for staff to get together and let their creative juices mingle(!). In the absence of that sort of physical space, I suppose that’s what virtual spaces like this and SOFII can offer, with the added benefit that we can share views beyond the confines our individual organisations.

I’d also like to highlight the brilliant video trailer for Stephen Johnson’s book that you reference. Check it out at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NugRZGDbPFU

Looking forward to Part 1.


Lucy Gower · June 30, 2011 at 20:40

Thanks David – You are absolutely right environment is v.important – so important I will cover it in another blog!

Love the trailer – the cartoonist is excellent – if you haven’t already read the book – I highly recommend.

Thanks for your comments – really appreciate them.


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