Martyn Drake: Charities give away their innovation far too freely

Sometimes, when dealing with for-profit organisations that want to tap our expertise, we must lose that charity mindset

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

According to Jim Baisillie, the ex-chair and chief executive of RIM, the company behind Blackberry phones, "innovation without IP [protection] is philanthropy".

Baisillie is no stranger to any of those concepts: he’s chair of the Canadian Council of Innovators, he’s fought some of technology’s biggest intellectual property battles and he’s made personal philanthropic donations in excess of $100m in recent years.

His statement was made in the frustration that his native Canadians have great ideas and phenomenal expertise, but they’re never the ones that profit from them. The main reason, he argues, is that Canada fundamentally lacks a coherent strategy and framework for IP development and protection. The same is true for charities.

In recent months I have been a grateful recipient of free advice from several charities, on everything from re-educating my kids’ head teachers on their legal responsibilities to dealing with the diabetic nightmares that are pasta and pizza. For beneficiaries like me, information, signposting and access to curated forums and networks are invaluable, potentially life-saving resources. Personally, I would have been happy to pay for that information, but many can’t – and that charities and individuals are willing to give their vast stores of hard-earned knowledge and expertise for free, is one of the shining lights, not just of our sector, but of our civilisation. But there’s a line at which that "charity" mindset needs to be dropped in favour of one that’s much more commercially astute.

In the past month alone, I’ve had two different clients call me to debrief on recent meetings, where the other party clearly saw them as a "charity" and expected free access to their expertise. In one, a pharmaceutical giant wanted to understand everything about the logistics and regulatory implications of developing gene therapies using human cells – insights that could shorten their research programmes by years and make them vastly more profitable. In another, a for-profit education business asked if two special education experts could be seconded to its Middle East office for a year, to "teach us everything we need to know", and generously offered to contribute towards their salary costs.

I also know of at least three major charities, one of which is currently in administration, that have developed great training programmes, only to find people that they’ve trained setting up their own businesses to undercut them, using the very materials from the courses they’ve attended. Some had even left the charity branding on them to add kudos.

None of these represent an equitable exchange for the charities’ valuable knowledge, but many charities continue to let this happen. The reasons I’ve heard have ranged from "not knowing we could" to "serving the greater good". And the latter is fine, if that’s your choice: Linus Torvalds gifted Linux to the world, just as Tim Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web – perhaps the single most impactful act of philanthropy in history. But you’d better believe they did it consciously, and it certainly wasn’t the person putting the courses together that made the de-facto decision.

Almost all charities have a huge store of valuable knowledge: things that work, things that don’t; practices and processes for organising and delivering services, for changing human behaviour, for influencing and navigating webs of politics and bureaucracy, and for creating life-changing outcomes. In fact, the history of the sector is one of continual innovation. What’s largely missing from that history, though, is a track record of identifying and taking those innovations to scale. And almost entirely absent is charities making decent money from it to further their missions. The reason is, we don’t know where to draw the line, when to protect and charge for our IP and when to give it, philanthropically or inadvertently, to individuals, charities, governments and for-profit corporations.

A charity’s expertise is the biggest single lever it has for increasing income and impact, but all too often it’s an invisible, untapped asset that we give far too freely, because most of us are like Canada – we lack a coherent strategy for developing, scaling and commercialising IP. How much more value, income and impact could your organisation create from its unique store of expertise?

Martyn Drake is the founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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