Adventures in innovation: Your great idea session!

In my last post I wrote about the challenge of making time to innovate and the importance of focusing your innovation efforts on the parts of your fundraising strategy where you have the potential to make the most difference.

One way to focus time, either for new idea generation or to develop existing ideas is to run an idea workshop or ‘brainstorm’. In my experience a lot of time can be wasted in ineffective idea workshops. Often these sessions are unstructured with underwhelming results. However, with a bit of planning you can transform something mediocre into a very good idea session. The reason why lots of ideas sessions are mediocre is because no planning goes into them. It’s crucial to plan your session to get the results you want. This blog is designed as a guide to help you with that transformation. First consider the following in your planning;

Physical environment – Have you ever had your best idea sitting behind your desk? Most likely not. So try to find somewhere away from the office where people feel relaxed, for example, a corporate partner’s offices, local café, or the park. If you can’t leave the building do what you can to make the environment you have as relaxed as possible, for example, food, toys, music, any props that relate to the subject matter. So if you are thinking up fundraising ideas for Christmas get the Santa hats and tinsel out.

When the NSPCC corporate fundraising team was generating ideas for a pitch for a partnership with retailer Superdrug they thought carefully about their idea session. The group went to the local Superdrug and bought something for £1 to help gain some first hand insight on being a Superdrug customer. The group then went to the park to share their retail experience, which they used as a starting point for ideas for the pitch.  Fresh ideas flowed and the corporate team secured the partnership which went on to raise over £60,000 from customers and staff. Cynics could argue that we would have had those ideas anyway. Perhaps. However I am sure that the range and quality of ideas was vastly improved because of first hand customer insight, a focused and structured discussion and a relaxed environment.

Timing – As part of your planning consider the time of day that you have your idea session. At four in the afternoon you won’t get the best out of people. Try for early morning before people have a chance to check their emails. Idea sessions, if run well don’t have to be hours and hours, short bursts can also work well. Consider what length of session will work best depending on the complexity and the nature of the topic.

Inspire – Think about how you can make the session an inspiring experience for the participants. After all it’s much easier to just keep doing what you have always done, it takes commitment and bravery to develop and implement new ideas or ways of working. Remember why you are striving to develop new ideas to raise more money. Relate back to the cause, tell a story to help people understand the difference you all hope to make. Make participants feel part of something important and that their input is valid. Make them want to come back and help you again.

Focus – We know about the importance of focusing and innovating around the areas of your fundraising where you can make the most difference. Be really clear on your focus. Providing focus helps people generate ideas. For example, don’t ask people ‘How can we raise more money?’ it’s too broad. Your group is likely to either come up with ideas too leftfield to implement or come up with nothing at all. A more focused question could be, “How can we raise an additional million from current supporters through our direct marketing activity?” Giving a focus will help you and the participants get the most from the session. A focus will help you get ideas that you are more likely to be able to action.

Invite a mix of people – The more diverse the group of people in the room, the more likely you are to get a range of different perspectives on your topic. Invite people from different teams: people in direct contact with donors, service staff, reception staff, the finance team, who swear they are not creative but, in my experience, invariably bring great insights. I recently worked with an agency called 100% Open who specialize in co-creation; working with service users to come up with ideas together. Can you involve your volunteers and service users in idea sessions?

Politics – Think about politics, it is likely that at some point down the line your ideas will need to signed off by a budget holder. Can you involve them in the early idea stages? It may help you get buy-in later in the process.

Have an independent facilitator – Have you ever been to an ideas session that has felt like it’s just a way for someone to validate their own idea; more of a publicity exercise than an idea generating exercise? Yes, me too.  A good facilitator who is impartial is crucial to getting the most from your ideas session. A facilitator’s role is to direct open discussion, make sure the session stays focused and keeps to time as well as getting the best from everyone in the room. Remember not everyone is extroverted and happy to put her or his ideas on the line. A good facilitator will ensure that everyone in the room gets heard, including the more reserved people, and that a range of techniques to provoke creative thinking and discussion are used.

Real or virtual? – This guide focuses on face to face idea sessions, however, they don’t have to be physical.  There are virtual platforms that you can use to involve a wide range of people. There are many organisations that use this crowdsourcing concept to generate ideas, this blog is a great example of the value of involving a range of perspectives.

Some great examples from the corporate world include:

  • LEGO Cuusoo who are crowdsourcing, pre-market making designs and sharing 1% of revenue with the idea originator and their helpers.
  • Orange ‘Do Some Good’. Mobile phone app that helps people do good in 5 minutes or less

So we have covered some of the key elements to consider when planning your idea session. In my next post we’ll look at how you can approach and structure your session and some more simple tactics that you can use to get the most from your participants.


This is the fouth part of a series on innovation. You can read the other three parts here:

Adventures in innovation – The Prequel

Adventures in innovation – The power of four

Adventures in innovation – The challenge of time

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