Open up minds to open up funding
When the same old problems crop up at work, it’s easy for them to become ingrained in our actual working patterns, an accepted obstacle to work around, much like the office furniture. In coffee breaks, comments like; “I guess that is just how it is”, or “You know, the same old, nothing changes” can often be heard. These conversations provide some insight into the ‘corporate mindset’ of an organisation.
Charities, just like all organisations, find it difficult to get to the root of their problems and find the right remedy. “We are struggling to hit targets”, “donors are giving less”, “there is a recession” are all familiar comments in the current economic cycle, while individuals and departments feel disconnected from the challenges facing the organisation. Staff themselves can feel there is little they can actually do to change the usual ways of working.
Open innovation forces charities to better understand why these issues exist by getting new perspectives on old problems. The method requires staff to stop and think about what the root causes are and how they might break down and solve these challenges with the help of others.
Taking part in the Open Innovation Programme provided participating charities with the time to reflect on their challenges. One such organisation was United Response; one of the largest UK charities, but one that was facing many of the fundraising challenges of a smaller start up charity. Having once delivered almost all of their services from public sector contracts, it had had little need to build up a household name for public fundraising. Now, with the challenge of reduced public spend and wanting to have greater flexibility around what kind of projects they run, the fundraising team have a clear challenge to grow support for the charity.
Unpacking the challenge
Innovation can be used to unpick these challenges. Tools such as ‘why laddering’, where the question ‘why?’ is repeatedly asked, help to reflect on what is really standing in the way, uncovering invaluable revelations. Initially the team had been aware that not being a household name was a challenge to fundraising with the public, but when they reflected on the structure, processes, skills and knowledge of fundraising across the organisation, they realised that there was a far bigger challenge: an internal culture that was just not familiar with asking people for money.
Open innovation forces charities to better understand why issues exist by getting new perspectives on old problems
Having clear objectives related to strategy then enables staff to frame their challenge in a question of ‘how do we get there?’ For United Response the question became, “how do we make our staff across the country feel more comfortable about fundraising?” For The National Trust it was, “how do we get more people volunteering?” and Marie Curie wanted to know, “how do we reach out and engage new audiences with giving?”
Open Innovation is a way of working beyond organisation or department siloes to tackle these fundamental problems. It is about looking across sectors and finding unexpected partners to help solve such knotty problems for mutual benefit. For United Response, looking for wider input changed the focus of their idea development sessions with stakeholders and helped them to design a project that celebrated the organisation with a 40th birthday party and initiated community fundraising activity across the country. The project has begun to change attitudes towards fundraising internally by showing what is possible with a bit of creative thinking and the encouragement to test an idea out in practice before it is ’perfected’. Tackling this internal challenge in a positive way has shown how fundraising opportunities can be unlocked in the future now that community fundraising ‘is already happening’ as part of United Response’s activities.
Maintaining focus and direction on funding
Another benefit of clearly defining your problem at the beginning is that it helps you to stay on track when you move into generating ideas. Ideas can come thick and fast when you involve lots of different stakeholders and people from a wide range of sectors. As part of the programme, the National Trust spent a good chunk of time understanding the problem it really needed to solve. It set very clear targets and was able to keep focus all the way through their idea generation phase by asking themselves, ‘Does this decision help to solve our problem?’
External funding was seen to be absolutely essential to encouraging open innovation and the charities on the Open Innovation Programme had a number of ideas that could encourage more openness and innovation in the third sector:
- Develop diagnostic tools to help charities see the need for, and opportunity to use, open innovation. Lack of experience in the sector was seen to hold back organisations in understanding how and when innovation methods could be used.
- Avoid pressuring charitable organisations to be ‘perfect’. By not expecting perfect solutions, charities feel more comfortable about opening up internally to focus on removing barriers and tackling the real challenges.
- Understand and back ‘open’ innovation. A funder can give a stamp of approval which will help win people over internally to trial this new way of working. WWF and Scope, who worked in partnership, said it would have been very difficult to find a way to partner on a ground breaking project to test ways of increasing people’s philanthropy without backing from an external funder.
- Encourage a culture of learning through maintenance of a learning diary for the project to record the development of projects and reflect on where there are opportunities to learn and what things could be done differently next time for the next innovation phase.
- Consider phased funding and support to find better outcomes. Phases, with timescales relevant to individual charities, could be to help understand challenges clearly and network with others to find shared problems; to explore ideas with partners from across all sectors and generate an idea to pilot; for piloting and results collaboration; to help with understanding scaling up pilot projects and moving on.
- Think about influencing other funders and support bodies and persuading them to use these helpful practices.
- Develop awards around using open innovation including risk management and partnership development.
It is fair to say that being open with innovation is not natural for the charity sector. The sector needs help evidencing how open innovation can work and collaboration with funders is a significant part of that process. The future will likely see some great initiatives come about, and at the heart of the solution, I imagine there will be a diverse cross-sector team breathing life into the ideas supported with appropriate and innovative funders.