The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “Innovation” as ‘(the use of) a new idea or method’. At first reading, this suggests that innovation is all about novelty – radical new approaches, untested methods, and world-changing ideas.
But this interpretation is simply impractical and inaccessible for most small charities, and in fact it undersells the value of trying to be more innovative.
In our experience at the Foundation for Social Improvement (The FSI), small charities are among the most naturally innovative organisations around. With creative use of limited resources, small and necessarily collaborative teams, and a close-up view of beneficiaries’ needs, it’s instinctive for many organisations to be flexible and responsive – and hugely innovative!
However, sometimes these conditions can also be restraints, and when we’re focusing so much on the day-to-day pressures it can be easy to get stuck in a rut and just keep ploughing on. This means we miss out on opportunities to improve services, increase efficiencies, and take a look at the bigger picture and adjust where we sit in it.
So, we wanted to share some top tips for encouraging innovative thinking into your organisation – some tools and approaches that won’t be burdensome but will open up new opportunities to increase your impact.
- Embed a culture of reflection and focus on your strengths – the most effective innovative ideas build on past learning and seek to increase the impact of what’s working well. Certainly, make the changes needed when things don’t work, but don’t forget to look at what’s succeeding and how you can grow this, or how you can identify the success factors and apply them elsewhere. At the FSI, we do a short team debrief after any and every project or event, and this means that we are continually refining our approach and scoping out opportunities. So, consider setting up a team meeting at key project milestones (and remember you can treat fundraising, marketing, governance etc. as projects too) to look at: what worked, why, what can we do more of, and how can we make it even better…
- Create the space – it’s really difficult to think differently when you’re focused on the day-to-day, so it’s essential that you find moments to step back and have these conversations. Make sure your team away days have space for big picture conversations or reviewing the overall direction, rather than being relentlessly focused on detail. Or try and build in a creative thinking section to a quarterly team meeting – you could even combine this with a Walk and Talk to get those thoughts moving.
- Be consciously objective and thoughtful about new ideas – it’s common to let our personal biases or histories cloud our judgement when considering ideas that might affect our jobs, and it’s really hard to override that! Create tools or frameworks to enable productive and more objective conversations, such as an ‘Options Appraisal’ – a few questions or principles you assess every new idea against, such as “does this meet our mission”, “do we have the skills and knowledge in-house to deliver it”, “what is the long-term potential of this”.
- Build networks and access different perspectives – ask your supporters and volunteers for ideas, connect with other local or similar organisations and pool your resources (and minimise risk) by working in collaboration, and follow leaders from your industry on social media and see what they’re talking about. You can learn lots from having open conversations and learning from others’ mistakes and successes.
- Involve your clients and community in the conversation – one of the best ways to see your work differently and identify opportunities is to ask those who access your services! There’s no point “innovating” if it doesn’t meet your beneficiaries’ needs, so find regular and inclusive ways to get feedback and consult on your strategy. Keep it proportionate but thoughtful – for example making sure you have a thought-through evaluation framework that involves qualitative questions too, or holding focus groups when planning new programmes.
- And finally, don’t feel pressured to make huge changes – small, incremental changes can add up to something much bigger and more effective over the long term. Refining your services, increasing efficiencies, smoothing out administrative hiccups all count as innovation, and may feel much more achievable and relevant.
This article is written by Lindsay Harrod, Consultancy and Development Manager at the Foundation for Social Improvement (FSI), a charity we’re proud to be partnering with in their mission to support small charities to become sustainable, independent, accountable and effective through training, advice, conferences and campaigns including Small Charity Week. Find out more at www.thefsi.org.