Zoe Amar: The new innovation rules for charities

There is a lot of learning for organisations to draw on as we emerge from lockdown

As we come out of lockdown, there is one big question charity leaders should be asking themselves: what should we stop, start, continue and change? 

Over the past year everyone has had to innovate in order to survive. There’s a lot of learning to draw on as we plan for the future. 

Charities are going to need those innovation skills to continue to meet the needs of beneficiaries, donors and supporters.

The recent Lloyds' Bank Consumer Digital Index revealed that over half (55 per cent) of the online population increased their digital usage throughout the pandemic, with 53 per cent feeling they might not have coped during lockdown without going online. 

The same study found that the UK has achieved five years of progress with digital capabilities in one year alone. 

Digital inclusion is still a very significant issue, and we must not leave those who cannot get online behind. Hybrid models will need to support not only them, but also people whose digital adoption has grown during the pandemic. 

So, how can charities continue to innovate at pace on tight budgets? 

Don’t revert to old habits

In uncertain times it’s only natural to want the comfort blanket of familiarity. Yet we have to acknowledge that the game has changed, not only with digital adoption but also with ways of working. 

Blackbaud’s recent Future of Work report found that 90 per cent of respondents think flexible working is here to stay. The pandemic democratised innovation, and we need to see it as a statement of intent, rather than a process that is always big and expensive. 

Darshan Sanghrajka, founder and chief executive of social innovation agency Super Being Labs, thinks that we need to change our innovation mindset. 

“It’s about looking at every problem and finding new angles and ways to solve each tiny little bit,” he says. “It’s about giving your teams the permission and space to try new things without umpteen meetings and long approval processes.” 

Some charities are already committing to doing things differently, with the London Marathon planning a hybrid event for this autumn. Charities need to ask themselves: how can we do what we do better to meet the needs of our donors right now? 

Innovation needs to be continuous

Being innovative is like doing exercise – the more we do it, the easier it gets. 

Henry Rowling, co-founder at Flying Cars Innovation, says that innovation is a numbers game. He advises charities to fail fast on their quest for success. 

“Failing well means doing it fast and small – then talking about the learnings from planned failures so the organisation only ever tests the hypothesis that matters once,” he counsels. 

Cats Protection has applied these principles to its work for years, gathering data on what is and is not working

Making innovation an everyday event, and part of how everyone expects to work together, also applies to boards. Sanghrajka has seen many innovation projects vetoed by trustees after months of work. 

“This won’t change until boards change and we have true diversity enabling multiple viewpoints and experiences to speak up,” he told me. 

Do you have enough different perspectives around your board table to evaluate new opportunities meaningfully? 

Let your audience be your guide

We all have limited resources at the moment. Rowling thinks charities need to look to the people they support to understand the latest trends. 

“The answer is to understand what your audience is doing. What do they need – where are they already?” he asks. This guide from Catalyst explains how to do user research on a budget

Once you identify an opportunity to innovate, you may achieve an even better result by pooling resources with organisations that occupy similar territory. The Scouts and Girlguiding have recently been jointly awarded more than £2m to digitally transform their volunteer recruitment processes

Whether you are a small or large charity, we will all need to continue innovating in order to grow. Charities whose leaders commit to listening to and learning from the people they support will be best placed to take advantage of new ideas. 

Zoe Amar is founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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