Why do open innovation?
In a competitive environment it’s difficult to stay ahead of the game. Open Innovation can help. In the corporate world, major companies have been working with outside organisations to innovate - creating value through developing new insights into their products and services.
With tightening funds in the third sector, it is appropriate to look for new resources in new places, and to remember that you won’t find all of the answers you’re looking for in-house. However, there are few instances of open innovation taking place in the charity and voluntary sector; yet the potential rewards are the same.
If done well, a more open approach to innovation could enable charities to reach a new network of skills, expertise and experience. Smaller charities often look outside their organisations to draw in skills and resources out of necessity. The Open Innovation Programme explored how to encourage this type of behaviour in much larger charities that naturally feel protective of their donor base, and competitive with other charities for funds and volunteers.
Like any new initiative or change programme, developing Open Innovation requires hard work and changing culture. To be successful leaders must understand the risks and rewards of open innovation, including how to plan for failure and managing real risk.
When working with charities to ‘do’ Open Innovation, there are three fundamental things to clarify before getting started:
1. Clarity on why you are developing an Open Innovation strategy; what impact are you seeking? Is it primarily about fundraising, or brand building or trying to meet an unfulfilled need?
2. What resource do you have available? What capacity, skills and experience do you have? If you don’t have adequate resources then get some.
3. Finally, ask yourself if your organisation is prepared to let go of some ‘control’? You have to be prepared to be open and trust your partners and your teams to experiment and develop in a way that is different to how you ‘normally’ do things.
More than buzzwords
As one of the charities who took part in the programme said; “Innovation is often a buzzword…isn’t Open Innovation just two buzzwords?”
Let’s take a closer look to get past the jargon and understand how working in a more open way can add real value to a charity’s work.
- Make a clear case for Open Innovation
It’s important to be clear what you want to achieve from the outset. This may sound obvious, but in the initial cohort of 28 charities in the Open Innovation Programme, the majority of initial ideas did not actually meet the charities strategic objectives. They were interesting ideas, but not focused clearly enough on core ‘business’ goals. Making ‘Innovation’ into reality instead of jargon means that you must focus on a task that is not just a ‘nice to have’. Unless you are clear in understanding why it’s strategically important and you communicate that across all stakeholders, it is likely that your projects will just be seen as marginal efforts.
- The right resource – capacity and skills
Open Innovation doesn’t just happen by itself. It requires time, effort and resource. It might take more effort to facilitate a group of partners to come together but the results have far greater potential than working up ideas behind your own four walls. For small charities like Foodcycle, they are working with volunteers and corporate partners in order to fundraise locally to develop their own volunteer hubs to provide healthy meals for local communities. By involving their stakeholders from the beginning, it has delivered faster results, because involving people from the outset means they have a bigger interest and stake in making the idea work.
- Let go of control in the traditional way.
Asking for help can be perceived as a weakness. Instead, grow networks before you need them, get out from behind your desk and attend events where you get the opportunity to meet new people and share some of the challenges or opportunities you are currently faced with. And by taking that first step, and by asking your network for their help, they will help you to come up with better, cheaper and faster results. In a fast moving networked world it will be those organisations that are gaining insight from their networks and responding quickly that will survive and thrive.
The National Trust – Big Family Day Out
The National Trust developed their Big Family Day Out concept through an Open Innovation approach aiming to bring together several elements that had been tested in different ways before combining into a new concept for increasing volunteering and brokering new relationships with corporates. The idea was a ‘family volunteering day’ aimed at large corporations who have CSR commitments to staff volunteering. Let’s take a look at how this project put an ‘open innovation’ methodology into practice to get a pilot project successfully off the ground.
The case for open innovation
The National Trust began by considering their organisational objectives and being really clear on the most important goals that they needed to reach. They agreed that in order to get new volunteers and visitors to their properties, they needed to explore new audiences. Their success was measured by current internal targets rather than inventing new measures or something that sat outside of current core work. They identified that compromising on family time was a barrier preventing people from volunteering. So the problem to solve became linked to creating more family time. The idea evolved to use employee-volunteering time as an opportunity to volunteer with your family. The idea was called the ‘Big Family Day Out’.
Right resource capacity and skills
The team realised it would be impossible to drive a project forward without a dedicated project manager. Big Family Day Out was developed by two specialist project managers. One had an external track record of working on volunteer management programmes and the other with internal knowledge of the Trust and properties. This combination of skills and experience helped to broker relationships across the organisation. Engaging people, as is the case with all projects, was key to success. The project managers also started planning to scale up the project before the pilot took place.
Change in this instance was achieved through taking a measured set of risks and opening up to new possibilities and partnerships at an early stage
At first there was some hesitation to let control go outside the organisation to develop the Big Family Day Out. The National Trust, as a large sophisticated organisation, is confident developing its own projects. When an initial approach to a sole corporate partner didn’t materialise, however, the team had already really understood the benefits of being ‘open’. They quickly hosted two workshops for corporates to contribute to a ‘what do you think and are you interested?’ session to explore another corporate partnership.
The feedback improved the design of the product and resulted in 10 organisations signing up for the pilot rather than just one, breaking down internal assumptions that had been made about partnerships being about exclusive relationships along the way. Multiple corporates were pleased to be given the opportunity to work with the Trust and together this gives more opportunity for the Trust to take the Big Family Day Out from strength to strength.
For the National Trust, the open innovation journey was a challenge. For their organisation and for other charities, it is clear that not allowing Innovation to become ‘a buzzword’ is achieved by focussing it towards core business goals. The National Trust maintained interest and support while the project itself extended beyond normal project partnerships both within the organisation and externally.
Those extended relationships became part of the pilot project success as more people and organisations committed to supporting it. Change in this instance was achieved through taking a measured set of risks and opening up to new possibilities and partnerships at an early stage – these are all transferrable lessons that many charities can benefit from if they use innovation methods to tackle what really matters to them, rather than allowing it to drift towards becoming jargon at the margins.