Innovation In Giving

60 minutes well spent…..

Nicolle Wilkinson

Einstein is rumoured to have said that if he had one hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution.

From an innovation perspective, this presents us with an interesting challenge – the challenge of staying ‘solution neutral.’ This essentially means taking time, often longer than you think you need, to really unpack and critically understand the nature of the problem, whilst avoiding the temptation to immediately jump to finding possible solutions for those problems. I have recently attended a number of workshops with individual and clusters of charities as part of phase one of the Open Innovation Programme which is part of the Innovation in Giving Fund where Einstein’s insight has proved to be particularly apt.

Watching charities really unpick the giving challenges their organisation(s) are facing has been fascinating. In line with the open innovation process, many charities have engaged a diverse range of individual supporters, corporates, partner organisations and external innovators to develop their understanding of their challenge- and ultimately their proposed solution to it. In particular, what has been interesting has been being part of some really interesting and challenging conversations that have looked at the assumptions that are made about who their supporters are, what they want, why and how they like to give. For some charities, these workshops have served as a reminder that confirms their core understanding. For others though, it has resulted in significant revelations and a recognition that they, in the words of one staff member, ‘need to throw the textbook out of the window.’

This then, is what Einstein is surely referring to. That by understanding (not assuming we understand) the nature of the problem we are trying to address, we are much better placed to develop viable, innovative solutions to address these. An obvious statement, but I think one that tends to be forgotten as most of us are naturally keen to progress to the more positive (and, let’s face it, often more fun) part of developing a solution. Watching how this has played out has also served as a timely reminder of the value of open innovation processes – through looking beyond our own organisations and sphere of knowledge, we can often deepen (or completely change) our understanding of the issue we are trying to solve.

The other interesting theme that is emerging quite strongly from the programme in phase one is how, when you really delve into it, many of the challenges facing the 28 charities in the portfolio are common across the portfolio – irrespective of whether the charity works in conservation or cancer, disability or young people. Very broadly, common challenges emerging include:

  • How to grow giving among a younger generation – particularly as many charities have an ageing supporter base and young people are traditionally one of the most challenging demographics for charities to engage effectively in giving


  • How to maximise the giving of time through offering more flexible, volunteer-led opportunities  - turning the existing model of a set number of volunteering opportunities on its head and responding to growing demand from volunteers for more ad hoc, flexible and micro volunteering opportunities

  • Better engaging with and maximising their supporter’s journey – many charities have recognised that often supporters are categorised as either a volunteer or a donor, when the reality is that many are both at various stages in their life. Clearly, when you’re talking about database’s that sometimes hundreds of thousands of supporters, categorisation makes it easier to manage the supporter base. However, as individuals increasingly move back and forth from one group to the other throughout various phases in their lives, charities are identifying the need to respond to this more nimbly.


  • How to maximise digital ‘supply and demand’ matching platforms: This has been a common challenge, alongside discussions around navigating a dense digital landscape to find the platforms that best suit charities’ needs, identify those that are genuine innovations and those that are simply a ‘flash in the pan’. Responding to this challenge, Nesta ran an additional support event on 3rd September focusing upon this, details of which are given in Helen Goulden’s blog 

In addition to open innovation supporting understanding the giving challenges that charities are facing, it is obviously our hypothesis as part of the programme that open innovation can also lead to the development of disruptive, agile solutions too. Judging by the ideas that are developing in phase one this seems to be the case and choosing which ones to back more intensively in the next phase of the programme is going to be very tough.

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