Innovation is a word we hear a lot these days. Across the globe, businesses are utilizing new technology, ideas and approaches to deliver services faster, wider and better. The development sector is constantly being urged to embrace innovation.
For NGOs, the risks of not innovating are high. Development organizations risk being left behind by new approaches and becoming obsolete, directly impacting their ability to deliver services and change.
In practice, what are the first steps an NGO should take to transform from an old guard mentality to embracing the new? Devex asked the global innovation adviser for Oxfam GB, James Whitehead, for his advice.
Investigate your culture
CEOs play an important role in determining whether their organizational culture fosters — or stifles — innovation. A hierarchical structure, for example, may favor the views and ideas of senior staff rather than enabling new ideas and approaches from across the organization to be shared, tested and implemented.
“Sometimes as people get more senior within organizations, they have to project that they know it,” Whitehead said. “That is a killer. In a climate of shrinking aid in some parts of the world, people go into an entrenched survival mode. I find that you need to create an organizational culture in which people are flourishing and have the permission to explore and question. That’s what you need to break out and do new stuff.”
Staff diversity can also contribute to innovation, so long as the organization is agile enough to respond. NGOs should ask themselves: “Do you have a level or organizational agility that is perfectly calibrated for the 1980s rather than today or tomorrow?” according to Whitehead.
NGOs also need to be responsive to sectoral change and to be able to grow in the evolving development space. Part of that means CEOs should acknowledge when they are stuck and seek new ideas and advice from those around them.
Consider hybrid business models
Concerns about donor funding can limit innovation, as aid organizations turn to tried and tested practices.
One way to address this stifling effect — and broader concerns about funding — is to consider a hybrid business model that could include both a non-profit and a for profit element. For example, complementing NGO activities with a consultancy arm offering paid services to government or the private sector can generate a stable income and build greater awareness of activities in other sectors and potential partnership prospects for the future.
Other avenues of nontraditional revenue raising, such as developing apps and crowdfunding websites, could also be considered to reduce the reliance on donors.
Take a risk with new partnerships
Partnerships and collaboration with like-minded organizations are easy for NGOs, according to Whitehead. Innovation often comes from seeking out partners with different experiences, expertises, or approaches.
“At the moment we are good at collaborating with like-minded organizations,” Whitehead said. “But there needs to be a greater change in attitude toward collaborations, acknowledging their value and building upon it.”
Stepping outside the comfort zone may be uncomfortable, but the risk may produce new ideas and make a larger impact. Debate and difference can foster new ideas as well as improve the knowledge and skills within all partnering organizations.
“How can you potentially have five times the impact by working with others?” Whitehead asked. “Thinking about this is what will drive new processes, collaborations and investigating different ways of utilizing global resources.”
Just do it
Being innovative does not come natural to all NGOs. Even within Oxfam, Whitehead has faced barriers in converting his innovative ideas into reality. His solution has been simple.
“At Oxfam, I prefer to simply get the job done,” Whitehead said. “It has been very successful.”
Regardless of your position within an organization, Whitehead urges development workers old and young to implement innovation in their everyday work. Being able to demonstrate tangible outcomes and impacts from new ideas is always more influential than discussing their potential.
This post was originally published by Devex. Click here to read.