What are the challenges of innovating in the non-profit sector?

Published by Maia Kahlke Lorentzen on


That was the big question we pondered when we gathered in an office overlooking London Bridge recently to plan Innovation Camp 2017 at this year’s IFC, coming up 17-20 October in the Netherlands.

Innovation Camp premiered at IFC in 2016, conceived by the quirky and creative minds of Marcelo Iniarra and Nick Allen. Dozens of participants went off-site, away from the hustle and bustle of the NH Hotel where IFC takes place, and ventured to Amsterdam for two packed days full of inspiration around the challenge of bringing more innovation into our daily work.

Marcelo and Nick wanted to make it bigger and better for 2017. So they gathered some of the sector’s best and brightest to determine the key issues to address when trying to get innovation sparking in non-profits. Among the thinkers and doers on hand:

  • Franki Ambrogetti, UNICEF Italy
  • Juan Cruz Mones Cazon, UNICEF Geneva
  • Lucy Sandford, UNICEF UK
  • Ellen Janssens, Dutch Heart Foundation
  • Danielle Porteus, Canadian Paralympic Committee
  • Duncan Cook, 3 sided cube

And I was on hand as facilitator of the day. Here are some of the tough questions we tackled in order to put together an even more powerful Innovation Camp for IFC 2017

Should ‘Innovate or Die!’ be our mantra?
This is the mantra of the tech-geeks of Silicon Valley, and it should be the mantra of the non-profit sector too. If we don’t adapt to our ever-changing world, we’ll become obsolete. That does not, however, only apply to the fundraising departments, but to the whole of our organisations. One big challenge, therefore, is to address the silo thinking that we have gotten used to. That in itself would be innovative.

Do we need incremental (vs. radical) innovation?
Innovation is becoming a buzzword that is applied randomly to anything that is slightly new. But what kind of innovation should we focus on — the small things that improve what we’re already doing, or the radical new innovations that transform how we work? Implementing tablets in our face-to-face operations could be an example of incremental innovation, whereas shutting the programme down to come up with something completely new would be radical innovation. But are we as a sector ready for all that radical innovation entails? That brought us to the next question…

Are we too risk averse?
Non-profits are naturally risk averse. We carry a great responsibility to serve our cause with maximum impact, and we are obligated to spend our donors’ contributions wisely. But innovation is a messy, costly business. Or, as digital visionary Kevin Kelly says, “Innovation is an inefficient process”. If we want to innovate our fundraising, we need to be ready to invest without always getting a return straight away. Innovation funds with an attached ROI target won’t work – we cannot count on hitting the target in the first go. We also need to get ready to fail, and fail often.

Are we failing enough?
Of course we are. But we tend to not share it, or when we fail, we tend to pull the plug on the project rather than seeing it as a learning experience, evaluate and improve. The entrepreneur’s mantra is ‘“fail fast”. Find out what doesn’t work  – quickly – and improve it. Overnight successes or eureka moments are not how innovation works – it’s a long, hard process and each failure is just one of the 10,000 steps to success. We should embrace and share our failures internally and within our sector.

How do we address these questions? And what other challenges do you face when trying to bring innovation to your work? Let’s hear it in the comments. Then register for IFC 2017 and join us at this year’s Innovation Camp. (Yes, we still have tickets left

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Maia Kahlke Lorentzen

Maia is a trainer, facilitator and consultant in the areas of mobilisation, digital communication and fundraising. She currently is digital manager at The Resource Alliance. She is a founding member of the Bonobo Radical Collective in Copenhagen and has held a variety of positions at Greenpeace and Amnesty International in Denmark,


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