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Charities – the sleeping giants of innovation

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I’ve recently been exploring the charity sector, to gauge interest in crowdsourcing ideas from their employees, partners or customers, as I was aware of several “innovation teams” being setup or already existing within many of the major charities.

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Charities aren’t utilising their greatest resource

My first stage of research was Google (of course). However, I was really surprised to see how little has been written about crowdsourcing innovation in the charity sector.  I decided to investigate further, talking, meeting and sometimes even pitching the concept of crowdsourcing to charity consultants, innovation managers, marketing teams and C-level executives from 5 of the top 10 charities in the UK (who shall remain anonymous for this story!).

It quickly became clear why there wasn’t anything written about crowdsourcing in charities: the level of innovation maturity within most charities is still at very early stages. For most, innovation means thinking of new ways to raise money for their cause: very few charities are considering how they can utilise the enormous potential of their crowds beyond fundraising.

Crowdfunding in the charity sector is obviously commonplace (thanks to Just Giving et al.), yet it seems that crowdsourcing isn’t. Gathering anything other than money from their supporters is still beyond most, if not all, charities.

There could be so much more to charities than just giving…

I personally find this point startling, considering how many volunteers work for many of the major charities. Some have armies of over 40,000 people regularly volunteering across the country, in addition to their enormous databases of donors, supporters and magazine subscribers (“in the millions” for one major charity I spoke to). This seems like a tragic waste of intelligence and enthusiasm for their cause – Imagine if you could harness all that good will, brain power or simply share best practice across the world. It would be game changing.

This is how charities operate – and it’s not enough

Let’s take a totally fictional charity, imagine the “Worldwide Sausage Roll Preservation Society”, that aims to protect the sausage roll from extinction, develop new types of sausage roll and raise money to support people who can’t eat sausage rolls anymore.

It has:

  • 3,000 staff – working in offices around the world.
  • 500 scientists – working on a range of R&D projects in universities across the UK
  • 40,000 volunteers – working in over 200 bakeries, on the highstreets of every town in the UK
  • 5 million supporters/magazine subscribers/previous donors on their database

As it currently stands, they communicate to their staff via regular emails and their intranet. They put up notices in their bakeries, have occasional conferences for their scientists and send out a newsletter to their database 4 times a year (asking for money).

How things could be better

This sort of works, but could be so much better. The problem is that the staff doesn’t really know what’s going on, or who to talk to in the other offices. They see things that could have a big impact if scaled up, but aren’t sure how to do it or who to talk to. The volunteers in the 200 bakeries all work like completely separate businesses. They have no way of communicating with the volunteers in the other bakeries and they tend to just ignore the orders that come down from Sausage Roll HQ, as they think they’re often irrelevant or just plain wrong. So they just do their own thing, having figured out their own workarounds and keep on selling as many sausage rolls as they always have. Some of the more passionate volunteers are frustrated, but they don’t know where else they could share their ideas apart from with their regular customers (“I’ve always said we should make these counters a bit lower so we can actually see our customers!”).

Finally, we have the Society’s supporters and donors. They love sausage rolls, that’s why they donated, raised money or signed up for the newsletter in the first place. They’re passionate about the cause and would love to help more if they could. However, the Worldwide Sausage Roll Preservation Society already seems very busy and hard to contact. The supporters only ever receive one-way communications from them about what they’re up to and the occasional request for more money. This gets a bit tiring from the supporter’s point of view, especially when many of the Society’s activities seem a bit old fashioned, but the supporters just assume they must be working on that already.

This story is similar to the situation I see across most charities: wonderful organisations, with a strong sense of purpose and large supporter bases but with very little collaboration.

What makes all the difference?

What if the Worldwide Sausage Roll Preservation Society was to harness the power of its staff, volunteers, supporters and donors by asking them for ideas? And allowing them to work on specific challenges together to create new solutions?

This is what idea management software enables and is what we’re doing with many other large organisations, that share a lot of similarities with large charities (i.e. large dispersed workforces and poor communications). But charities have a major advantage that, if utilised, could be extremely powerful: their shared passionate sense of purpose.

A passionate purpose

Large corporates spend £millions trying to create a brand that means something to people. Something people will care about and will engage with – charities rarely have this problem. Their whole organisation was set up to address a specific problem that is important to people. This, in turn attracts a passionate following of  taff/volunteers/supporters/donors who want to help.

Isn’t it time we allowed them all to get involved?

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