Helen Goulden: Rolled-up shirt-sleeves innovation

The director of Nesta's Public Services Lab picks out her top tips for developing smart ideas

Helen Goulden
Helen Goulden

As many commentators and charities are right to point out, the capacity for a charity to test out ideas that might not work is pretty limited; and there is very little tolerance for failure. And yet, just as we're seeing in health and public services, there is an increasing need to innovate; to generate, test and deploy ideas that attract people into the act of giving, whether that be giving to a major charity, giving time to a local charity, or giving and sharing within our local communities.

But innovation is hard. It’s frequently thought to be synonymous with inspiration, not perspiration, and without the luxury of dedicated resources it is not often afforded any meaningful status within an organisation.

So avoiding all those hopelessly generalised statements about how to 'create a culture of innovation', calls to put aside a percentage of budgets towards R&D and trip-off-the-tongue clichés about rewarding and celebrating failure, here is my shirt-sleeves-rolled-up, top tips for doing grown-up innovation.

1. Don't do it alone

There are many challenges to innovating in giving that are relevant to the entire charitable sector; attracting younger people into the act of giving, making more intelligent use of in-kind resources to name a couple. What we've seen in the Cabinet Office's Open Innovation Programme - and what we saw in the birth of the Pennies Foundation - is that joining forces and resources can be very powerful, result in richer thinking and provide momentum for systemic change and sector-wide solutions. The challenges that face many of today’s charities are not peculiar to them - they are often endemic and universal. The growing group of charities that are coming to the 'Common Cause' table will be worth watching over the next 12-18 months.

2. Look out of the window, not into the mirror

Let's be honest about it, many organisations are incredibly inward-looking and innovation can be constrained through conflating the existence and persistence of the organisation with the organisations' mission. If Charity X wishes to continue delivering an advice service, it needs to raise funds, which limits innovation to fund-raising, not new approaches to delivering advice. But genuinely sustainable innovation may well come from radically rethinking the thing that the organisation provides, and how. Focusing on innovations in fundraising is unlikely to take you close to that territory.

Charlie Leadbeater talks brilliantly about mapping out innovation as a deliberate strategy and my hasty summary of it would be that if you want to innovate incrementally within the confines of your organisation, that's fine - but it should be a conscious and active choice. Just as seeking to innovate towards transformative solutions that might sit outside your organisation but still deliver your core mission should be an active, conscious choice. Being clear and honest about just how far you are willing to explore radical innovation is critical. Because peddling innovation as one thing - when of course it is many things - is a sure-fire way to be confused and disappointed by its results.

4. Cast a wide net, then hone down.

The first call for ideas for the innovation in giving fund - which was open to any sector, any kind of organisation - yielded a whacking 90 per cent of applications from relatively young, relatively small companies and social enterprises. As I've said before, their appetite and ambition to innovate and take risks on behalf of the charitable sector is to be applauded, and supporting a large number of these through the fund to prototype and test their ideas feels entirely the right approach. It doesn't feel right to sink big investment into early-stage, unproven ideas based on a hunch they might work. The next stage of the fund is well under way, which supports a number of the most promising ideas with much more substantial investment, time and support to scale their work. And the same approach can work at a charity/organisational level too. With an increasing number of free-to-use platforms and ideas out there, there is the space to experiment and learn what works before sinking costs into white-label platforms, licensing costs, large scale campaigns etc. Trailing something quietly on someone else's platform or trailing something in a very small, controlled way might be a leap for some charities, but it’s cheap, quick and insightful.

5. Develop an eye for the Emperor’s New Clothes

In 2005, Alex Tew set up the million dollar home page, with a mission to sell the one million pixels on his home page for a dollar each. He managed it, raising over a million dollars and most people saw that this for what it was – a one-off, a gimmick. But it spawned a whole load of copy-cat sites, which of course never realised the same success as Tew had. But the principles that underpinned the idea were age-old and pretty sound; that you can, given an engaging enough idea, get lots and lots of people to give you relatively small amounts of money. The rise of tech-enabled crowd-funding embodies these exact principles, and while I would expect crowd-funding to evolve quite a bit over the next few years, I suspect the principles that underpin it will broadly persist. So when we’re looking at ideas like crowd-funding, asset-sharing platforms, offering rewards for giving etc, it makes sense to look under the bonnet and explore the underlying principles. Do the principles (as distinct from the thing itself) stack up for you? And are there more and better ways those principles might be applied to suit your organisation and aims?

7. Stop Doing Things That Don't Work That Well

One of the things organisations outside the private sector are generally a bit bad at doing is stopping doing things; decommissioning, especially if those things are not abject failures but are pootling along - getting by. I've spoken to a number of organisations recently who run campaigns and services that are in decline, failing to yield the returns they once did but with no real plans to either resuscitate them or commit them to the ground. If you want to innovate, develop and adopt new ideas, it will almost certainly be accelerated and supported by stopping doing something else.

8. Share risks and rewards

A critical part of open innovation methodology, the idea of sharing both the risks and rewards of innovation, can be incredibly helpful in lean times. You'll be aware of the diffusion of innovations curve, which begins its steep ascent with the innovators, followed by the early adopters, climbing toward a tipping point, where the adoption of an innovation accelerates into the 'late majority' and finally those infernal 'laggards'. Waiting until a particular new idea reaches that tipping point before adopting it can be a useful strategy as you can let others take all the early risks while you wait and adopt something when all the kinks have been ironed out.

Assuming there's space for you then, of course. As those who have shouldered all that risk might be the ones best placed to reap the biggest rewards, leaving you puffing after the zeitgeist bus as it disappears over the hill. So why not find a way of reducing the risks and reaping some rewards through collaboration with people outside your organisation or outside your sector? We've been trying to foster this kind of approach with the Open Innovation Programme, and you can find out more about the Cabinet Office’s Innovation in Giving Fund here & here

Helen Goulden is director of Nesta's Public Services Lab


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