Gloves Off 2: Innovation

Published by Tony Elischer on

Beg, Borrow or Steal?

Every charity I know of now has firmly embedded in its fundraising and marketing strategy an objective around ‘innovation’ and the need to develop new ideas, new target audiences or innovations within existing programmes. We used to focus on ‘creativity’ and the space to develop ideas, but now we have to cut to the chase and look for innovations that can move rapidly to market to deliver on their promises.

Some charities expect this part of the strategy to happen within existing budgets, which frankly is dreamland; while others set reasonable investment budgets, but often on an annual basis, which suppresses possibilities and potentially puts programmes at risk. Too many charities like the idea of innovation and desperately want it, but simply aren’t willing to invest what it takes either financially or staff and time wise.

Tony_1So now we begin to define the ‘thin ice’ on which innovation is based in our Sector; where do these miraculous new innovations come from and more importantly, as you read this, how many can you name, either of your own or others??? Sadly the answer is very few and often what you can highlight has been around a while. Frankly our Sector is in danger of stagnating when it comes to new innovations that are changing the landscape and filling the funding, engagement or communications gaps that are widening on a monthly basis. No commercial enterprise would still be trading if it had the same R&D track record as most charities.

I simply can’t stop there, you see the trouble is that not only are we not delivering, but we are kidding ourselves that we are! How many of you thought about the Ice Bucket Challenge three minutes ago? Innovative yes, but spontaneous, not sustainable and a unique moment in time for an amazing cause, ALS. And where did the idea really come from (in my view open for debate)? Or more importantly why did it work so well? The simple heart of this was ‘viral’, capitalising on the power and popularity of social networks; it drove itself with a little help from ALS. We will continue to see a steady stream of these viral campaigns driven by ‘people power’ and we must respond, but we must also not kid ourselves that these are ‘our’ innovations, we’re there to ride the wave and to stay standing as long as we can!

Tony_2Too many of the so-called new developments in our sector are recycled or ‘borrowed’ from other charities. When it comes to innovation think of yourselves in a shark tank, you’re either a shark with all the power, resources and majesty it takes to spot an idea emerging and to claim it as your own; or you are a smaller fish ducking and diving with an idea, but not always with the resources and skills that will protect you. Somewhere in the middle the fish do their best to push forward, but constantly risking their innovations in the market place surrounded by sharks! So the reality of the shark tank is that there are very few new ideas and everyone is watching everyone else in the hope of an easier life.

Fundraising has a rich history of innovation and our Sector is based on ‘brain power not budget power’. However, as we become more sophisticated and more structured innovation is talked about a lot more than it is done or delivered.

Delegating responsibility for innovation is another great game for the ‘Sharks’. As well as looking to swoop on opportunities they have the resources to brief agencies to come up with the impossible: ‘a completely new idea that will raise ‘£x’ in year one (roughly 1:3 return!), plus reach new younger audiences and build the brand in line with the communications and advocacy strategies.’ As they say ‘the impossible we do tomorrow, miracles take a bit longer!’ I know this is why agencies are there, but how much innovation can really come out of an ill thought through brief that is not part of this world!

I am a big fan of G-Marketing (Guerilla Marketing), truly doing things differently. But one of the underlying rules of this form of marketing is to go into it prepared for rapid innovators to copy you and to move fast with decent resources. However the rule on the other side is that if you steal an idea, make it better, so that when people steal from you they have to do likewise and gradually great ideas evolve into awesome ideas. But where is the ‘code of conduct’ (written or otherwise) or outlook in our Sector? Instead we prefer to cry out that our idea has been stolen and that we’re shocked and upset by that!

No one is a greater advocate than me of imagination, creativity and innovation in our Sector, but I am increasingly disassociating these words and processes with charities as things aren’t yielding results and inspiring us collectively. I just hope I’m missing something……..


Tony Elischer

Tony Elischer

Tony has over 30 years hands on experience in the not for profit sector. He has been a consultant for the last fourteen years working at the highest level across a wide range of causes and organisations and is the founder of the leading international consultancy THINK Consulting Solutions. He is an internationally regarded expert on fundraising and marketing, having extensive experience of helping charities worldwide with strategy, fundraising, management and troubleshooting. In the last 12 months he has worked in over 20 countries.


Lesley · July 31, 2015 at 14:48

This is a brilliant blog and I couldn’t agree more…
perhaps unsurprisingly as I am an one of the growing cohort Innovation & Product Development managers! Reading job specs and speaking to fellow innovation peeps, it is clear that innovation within charities is predominantly about incremental or channel innovation and product development (and often product borrowing) rather than radical innovation and it isn’t surprising that is the case. For radical or transformational innovation to thrive and work there needs to be investment, time, long term vision, space and the opportunity to fail all of which are incredibly difficult to find within charities for many understandable (but no less frustrating) reasons.

But there is an acknowledgment of that and in just in the last 10 days there have been two different gatherings of innovation managers getting together to talk about the work we do and potentially what big innovation challenges the sector faces that we could approach together. If we can put aside the natural inclination to compete and protect, we could together achieve the collective inspiration you talk about.

John Godfrey · August 4, 2015 at 21:29

OK, I confess. I am a Luddite. On reading this I want Tony to offer his examples of our “rich history of innovation”. See, I am not convinced that fundraising has changed that much over the centuries. It’s been about having a compelling case, engaging with interested potential donors and offering them the opportunity to help for centuries. New widgets and apps don’t change that. OK, we don’t use quills and ink, or send letters by runner much anymore. But is that innovation in fundraising?

    Tony Elischer · August 5, 2015 at 10:31

    Hi John, thanks for engaging. The best thing I can do is refer you to http://sofii.org/ an amazing living museum of some of the greatest innovations that have built fundraising both historically and today. ENJOY

Stephanie · August 21, 2015 at 01:30

To keep the annalogy going, I think a lot of fish in the charity sector have a lot on. Everyone is very busy swimming, and trying to swim harder and harder each year. You rarely come across a fish in fundraising that is just bobbing along. I think phases similar to the following are probably common to hear in charitable organisations: “how do you expect me to ‘innovate’?! I barely have the time to fit in all the business as usual that I am supposed to be doing, and if someone else comes up with a crazy, new, risky idea I’m not prepared to spend my time nor budget implementing it as it doesn’t fit my original objectives”

So for me, innovation isn’t just about new ideas and blue sky thinking to come up with the next big thing. Mainly because people naturally give push-back on the risk that comes with something new or something out of a charities comfort zone/traditional way of working.

Innovation is definitely possible but it needs to be insight led. And it needs to be a solution to a problem that a charity is facing. It needs to fit an organisational need.

To give you an example. If I were to walk into my fundraising directors office and say ‘hey I’ve thought of something brilliant, it involves a membership scheme and a china tea cup giveaway and it’s going to require £10,000’ i wouldn’t be taken very seriously.

However, say that a fundraising team identifies that one main problem they are facing with their annual coffee and cake appeal is that they are not getting repeat participants year on year. They get new business, but not repeat donations. They need a solution to that problem right?

‘hey I’ve thought of something brilliant, it involves a membership scheme and a China tea cup giveaway and it’s going to require £10,000’

Boom. The reaction is now quite different. Innovation that is based on a need, and is insight driven, much more easily fits in to business as usual and your ideas are much more likely to be immplented.

This is quite a long winded way of saying: i think fundraising managers need to look at the problems and challenes they are facing and communicate them transparently to the rest of the team or even the rest organisation, and then innovation will happen. Solutions will be thought up. Solutions that fit a business need and ultimately lead to more income for the causes we work for.

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