Gloves Off 2: Innovation

Beg, Borrow or Steal?

Every charity I know of now has firmly embedded in its fundraising and marketing strategy an objective around ‘innovation’ and the need to develop new ideas, new target audiences or innovations within existing programmes. We used to focus on ‘creativity’ and the space to develop ideas, but now we have to cut to the chase and look for innovations that can move rapidly to market to deliver on their promises.

Some charities expect this part of the strategy to happen within existing budgets, which frankly is dreamland; while others set reasonable investment budgets, but often on an annual basis, which suppresses possibilities and potentially puts programmes at risk. Too many charities like the idea of innovation and desperately want it, but simply aren’t willing to invest what it takes either financially or staff and time wise.

So now we begin to define the ‘thin ice’ on which innovation is based in our Sector; where do these miraculous new innovations come from and more importantly, as you read this, how many can you name, either of your own or others??? Sadly the answer is very few and often what you can highlight has been around a while. Frankly our Sector is in danger of stagnating when it comes to new innovations that are changing the landscape and filling the funding, engagement or communications gaps that are widening on a monthly basis. No commercial enterprise would still be trading if it had the same R&D track record as most charities.

I simply can’t stop there, you see the trouble is that not only are we not delivering, but we are kidding ourselves that we are! How many of you thought about the Ice Bucket Challenge three minutes ago? Innovative yes, but spontaneous, not sustainable and a unique moment in time for an amazing cause, ALS. And where did the idea really come from (in my view open for debate)? Or more importantly why did it work so well? The simple heart of this was ‘viral’, capitalising on the power and popularity of social networks; it drove itself with a little help from ALS. We will continue to see a steady stream of these viral campaigns driven by ‘people power’ and we must respond, but we must also not kid ourselves that these are ‘our’ innovations, we’re there to ride the wave and to stay standing as long as we can!

Too many of the so-called new developments in our sector are recycled or ‘borrowed’ from other charities. When it comes to innovation think of yourselves in a shark tank, you’re either a shark with all the power, resources and majesty it takes to spot an idea emerging and to claim it as your own; or you are a smaller fish ducking and diving with an idea, but not always with the resources and skills that will protect you. Somewhere in the middle the fish do their best to push forward, but constantly risking their innovations in the market place surrounded by sharks! So the reality of the shark tank is that there are very few new ideas and everyone is watching everyone else in the hope of an easier life.

Fundraising has a rich history of innovation and our Sector is based on ‘brain power not budget power’. However, as we become more sophisticated and more structured innovation is talked about a lot more than it is done or delivered.

Delegating responsibility for innovation is another great game for the ‘Sharks’. As well as looking to swoop on opportunities they have the resources to brief agencies to come up with the impossible: ‘a completely new idea that will raise ‘£x’ in year one (roughly 1:3 return!), plus reach new younger audiences and build the brand in line with the communications and advocacy strategies.’ As they say ‘the impossible we do tomorrow, miracles take a bit longer!’ I know this is why agencies are there, but how much innovation can really come out of an ill thought through brief that is not part of this world!

I am a big fan of G-Marketing (Guerilla Marketing), truly doing things differently. But one of the underlying rules of this form of marketing is to go into it prepared for rapid innovators to copy you and to move fast with decent resources. However the rule on the other side is that if you steal an idea, make it better, so that when people steal from you they have to do likewise and gradually great ideas evolve into awesome ideas. But where is the ‘code of conduct’ (written or otherwise) or outlook in our Sector? Instead we prefer to cry out that our idea has been stolen and that we’re shocked and upset by that!

No one is a greater advocate than me of imagination, creativity and innovation in our Sector, but I am increasingly disassociating these words and processes with charities as things aren’t yielding results and inspiring us collectively. I just hope I’m missing something……..


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