Innovation for small charities – ten top tips

Innovation

As head of fundraising innovation at Marie Curie Cancer Care, I am lucky to have what I consider one of the most interesting (and rewarding) jobs in the voluntary sector. While the number of charities with dedicated innovation functions is increasing, it seems that most of these roles are still confined to the largest charities.

This is a shame.

I truly believe that every charity deserves an innovation function – of a size and shape appropriate for the scale of its ambitions.

A full-time team dedicated to innovation may be out of the financial reach of smaller organisations. So how can they harness the power of innovation? Here are my top ten tips for how smaller charities can innovate without a dedicated team.

innovation

1. Consider pro bono/low bono sources of support.

Do you have trustees or other supporters with relevant business skills (insight, analytics, and product development) who can help? Investigate pro bono networks like Pilotlight or Cranfield Trust for sources of advisors. Consider buying in some focussed consultancy if required.

2. Look for “pump-priming” investment.

You may be able to find a grant-making trust or a major donor who would fund, or part-fund, an innovation post for a period of time until the role begins to pay for itself.

3. Make innovation everyone’s, or at least someone’s, job.

It may not be their full-time remit, but identify some team members you can empower to become an innovation lead and invest in their development. Send them on relevant training and then give them responsibility for embedding innovation practices in the rest of the organisation. Charities like Terrence Higgins Trust have successfully deployed an “Innovation Champions” model whereby a few members of staff focus on innovation for a defined period of time in addition to their day jobs. At Marie Curie, we have a team of part-time Innovation Champions drawn from across Fundraising whose efforts complement the work of our small central Innovation team.

4. Leverage your networks.

Seek out other organisations that are addressing similar challenges and work together. Pool your investment (and risk) by engaging in open innovation and share what you learn. Co-commission insight research that you can all use and/or co-invest in new product development.

5. Think about what you could stop doing.

A key starting point for innovation is taking an honest look at your current portfolio of activities. What kind of return are you getting from your current activities? How does this compare to what your peers are achieving? The charity sector in England and Wales is remarkably transparent in that accounts are readily, and freely, available on the Charity Commission website. It is, therefore, relatively easy to benchmark your performance. Is there something that is delivering poor returns that you could “kill” in order to make room for a higher margin opportunity?

6. Put your reserves (if you’re lucky enough to have them) to work.

With interest rates at all time lows, most charities aren’t making a great return on their cash. Consider setting aside a manageable pot for innovation projects, with a carefully defined risk/reward threshold. The return you could realise on a new income generation project could be far higher than what you could make leaving your cash in the bank.

7. Use your size to your advantage.

You can be nimbler, and it doesn’t take as large an investment to see meaningful results.

8. Imitate intelligently.

Not being the market leader has its benefits: you can learn from the mistakes of others, identify what really works, and then copy shamelessly! Most of the great new fundraising initiatives that have emerged recently have, in large respects, borrowed heavily from the ideas of others. Mystery shop your peers and learn from what they’re doing. Host mini “hothouse sessions” where you bring together colleagues to evaluate competitor products; discuss what works, what you think could be done better, and how you could apply these learnings in your own charity.

9. Pay attention to social media.

We are fortunate to work in a sector where many of the smartest minds literally give away their insights for free every day! Identify thought leaders whose opinions you respect and follow their blogs and Twitter accounts to seek out new ideas that you can apply within your organisation. Engage in debates in on-line forums like LinkedIn and within the comments sections on blogs. Bring colleagues together over lunch to share what you’ve learned and discuss important issues.

10. Be agile.

Begin with rich insight from your supporters: you don’t have to spend a lot of money to gather these – just pick up the phone and talk to them about what they want from you; this is good stewardship anyway! Build ideas around these insights, and get to a prototype quickly. You don’t need a beautifully designed pack to test an idea (done is better than perfect) and a small amount of live market testing beats a great deal of market research. Put products and propositions into the hands of your supporters quickly so they can “play” with them and tell you what they think. Start small, then test, learn and build from there.

Innovation shouldn’t be the exclusive purview of the largest charities. Anyone can be an innovator if they’re ready to make an appropriate commitment.

 Have you got an innovation case study you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing us at blog@justgiving.com.

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Meredith Niles is the head of fundraising innovation at Marie Curie Cancer Care. She's passionate about helping charities big and small achieve their goals. She volunteers her time as a trustee of Booktrust, Toynbee Hall, and Hestia Housing and Support and writes in a personal capacity.