Should not-for-profit organisations develop their own unique innovation culture?

As I was researching technology partnerships with one of my clients, I was surprised to see how frequently people raised an anxiety about whether they were, organisationally speaking, innovative enough. The rapidity with which the issue came up in conversations was maybe linked to the fact that they are among those who are already doing a lot to cultivate a culture of innovation – I know they run an internal challenge fund for example. However it struck a chord with me because I often look at new innovations funds in our sector, and see that some of the things these funds end up supporting have been around for a long time. Is it true that maybe there is not enough innovation culture in NGOs? Or is it that we need, as a community, to better define what a workable innovation culture looks like for us?

The popular model of innovation is based on the idea of entrepreneurs, usually in business, devising a new thing that consumers love in droves. There is a theory to counter this emerging from (for example) the writings of Mariana Mazzucato in the Entrepreneurial State, which identifies ways in which states provide the essential social and material infrastructure for innovation. Daniela Papi-Thornton of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review of the risks of ‘heropreneur’ thinking and the need to support the people who have spent time up close to a problem – by choice or because they live with it. It reminds us that in NGOs, our role is often more to be the ‘first follower’ than the visionary, that our work should always be in the service of a community of people. I think it is fair to say that not-for-profits could benefit from defining their own unique innovation culture, different to private enterprise and the public state.

These are my starting points for what a not-for-profit innovation culture could look like.

Be clear that our risk/reward calculation is different than for businesses in general

A not-for-profit which work with vulnerable populations, perhaps in fragile geographies, has to make a different kind of risk/reward calculation than a business developing new consumer technology. When you are taking risks with other people’s well-being, or donor money, the risk/reward calculation is usually set in quite a different place. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the most widely name-checked innovations in development, the low-cost mobile money transfer service of M-PESA in East Africa, emerged initally from the private sector, although it always had social purpose in its DNA and has proven to be a unique platform for the development of new socially valuable programmes from a huge array of other groups. As Edgar Schein, organisational psychology theorist and Professor Emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, said:

‘I was struck by how different computer companies were from chemical companies because of the underlying technologies that spawned engineers with very different worldviews, concepts of time, approaches to experimentation, and so on. For example, the easy fooling around with circuits that DEC engineers reveled in would have been career suicide in the chemical environment of Ciba-Geigy.’ (Organizational Psychology Then and Now: Some Observations)

I think not-for-profits will often feel more like the chemicals company than the software firm in terms of their risk profile. The humanitarian principle of ‘do no harm’ has to be applied to innovation in not-for-profits. Organisations like the Gates Foundation which do fund innovations in health have serious standards in research protocols, in order to ensure that their work does no harm.

Acknowledge the constraints in our type of (social) businesses

Then there are operational challenges to innovation, such as the inability to free up time to share ideas, or to borrow Clay Christensen and his colleagues, the time to develop the ‘five discovery skills for innovators’, to: associate ideas, question, observe, experiment, network. Research Councils sometimes run 5 day sandpits, (innovation workshops) but I find it hard to imagine most NGO staff I know being able to take 5 days out of their jobs for something which may turn out not to help their project at all. Where staff are project funded, this is hardest of all. And our ‘experts on the problem’ – the intended beneficiaries of the innovation – are probably busy or hard to access.

However, I think there are many, many channels for innovation in the not-for-profit sector.

First off, I think there is a lot more of innovation going on than people realise. We should celebrate the innovations that our community is in the middle of developing right now. Mostly at the level of process or business model innovation rather than product innovation but a lot of the time, that’s where the innovation is needed. We have technology that is good enough for most basic needs, the challenge is getting it through the last mile. Tim Black, the founder of Marie Stopes International invented a social enterprise model for MSI back in the 60s. People are still re-inventing that model today. Or the consistent piloting of cash transfers as an aid model (instead of food aid, or building shelters for people) is producing an overwhelming body of evidence that cash transfers are effective. Cash transfers, especially if done on electronic platforms, will bring down operational costs hugely as it’s way cheaper to transmit cash than move food around. Development practitioners have proven willing to disrupt themselves and their traditional ways of doing their work.

If things like product innovation don’t flow naturally from your social business model, don’t worry about it. You’re probably doing a great job on frugal innovation in how to deliver vital services with hard-to-reach communities. Don’t worry so much, you people are good at this.

Document, reflect and share your work

Secondly, and this is my biggest one, even if management is hardass and don’t really believe in toilet breaks as long as we’ve still not solved world hunger, quickly document your work and get feedback. Reflect on it. There may be innovations in there that you can’t see yourself, or that only become obvious after a year of implementation has kicked them into shape, like the camels carrying solar powered mobile pharmacies my colleagues devised at Save the Children with a partner organisation in the Somali region of Ethiopia. It was a great example of frugal innovation I thought – applying an existing technology and an existing – er – camel – to the problem of health services for nomadic populations in terrain where sand regularly chews up jeeps.

It doesn’t have to get written up in the Lancet to be valuable. It could be a relatively small problem that you solve, but share it. Who else is having that problem? If you or someone else fixed a problem, however small, and 10,000 people are having that same problem, actually you could be fixing a medium-to-large problem before you know it. Sometimes even carefully and thoughtfully delineating a problem can help someone else working on it to understand it better.

So in summary: Stay aware of innovations in our community; reflect; write up and share your cool problem-solving stuff. That’s all I’ve got for now. I am sure I have missed many important points and I welcome your contributions to this discussion.