Innovation: is it growth or value led?

15 November 2019
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What does ‘innovation’ really mean and what can the fundraising sector learn from inspiring innovators elsewhere? Adam Bryan, Director of Partnerships & Innovation at the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, takes a look.

Innovation – it’s a word that means different things to different people. But it is important as a sector and as individual organisations that we evolve, that we remain relevant in this fast-changing world; that we delight and engage with our supporters across multiple activities and make them feel they are part of making a difference. It is important that we continuously improve; explore different funding models; that we take risks; we collaborate; that we are creative about problem solving and that we focus on how we can have greatest impact to solve the world’s most pressing issues.

But that is a lot to have in a job title…

Henry Thoreau could have been talking about innovation when he said: “it is to solve some of the problems of life, not theoretically, but practically”. Instead, he was discussing philosophy. The sector might not be ready for ‘Heads’ of Philosophy’ but we should at least ensure we put time aside to understand and resolve some of the problems we face.

What can we learn from outside the sector?

We can learn from outside of the sector although we should be thinking hard about who we hold up as exemplars. One of the first recommendations I was given was Mars. It took me a day to realise it was the chocolate bar. What was so innovative about this, I wondered? But the bit about Mars that impresses those qualified business minds is that it has been within the top three selling confectionary bars worldwide for 50 years, and sold in a million countries. Other people suggest looking at cola companies and an array of Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies.

So I did and I’m sure there are many things we can learn. They are very good at marketing and selling, for one. But aren’t some of them also examples of the worst kind of corporates? Solely focussed on growth, margins, shareholder value and market share. And a big reason why many of us work in this sector is to get away from them.

Genuine value

So surely we as fundraisers can do better? We're smart, passionate, driven people. Of course, we have important projects to fund. But if we want to make the world a better place then chasing growth won’t be the answer. Instead our focus should be on our vision and mission, driven by genuine values and an aim to bring our supporters with us.

This could be ‘purpose’ – a word I hear a lot lately and a buzzword in business circles. There are some fantastic examples of successful companies driven by purpose. A favourite of mine is Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company.

To quote its inspiring founder, Yvon Chouinard: “We believe the accepted model of capitalism that necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for destruction of nature must be displaced. Patagonia and its two thousand employees have the means and the will to prove to the rest of the world that doing the right thing makes for a good a profitable business.”

Their focus is on making the best product they can, doing the right thing and using business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis is to be applauded. There are many other great, positive case studies but also others that have cottoned on to using purpose to help them market and sell more products.

Can we 'own purpose'?

So where does that leave us? Don’t we own purpose? It seems the answer is ‘no’.

“We mustn’t mix up our purpose with our organisation” a fundraising director said to me recently. If someone cares passionately about a cause, there are a wide range of ways they can show their support – from crowdfunding directly; volunteering; buying a piece of clothing; going on strike or joining a movement.

Movements are at the other end of the spectrum to Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies – they are driven by direct action. They have been around in some form since before all of us were born, but we’re seeing them gain incredible momentum and social media is enabling them to gain global traction.

Extinction Rebellion is good example of this – focussed on using nonviolent civil disobedience to drive government action. Who doesn’t enjoy getting disobedient for a good cause?!

So going back to the question, we may not own purpose but we can own being values led and doing the right thing. Growth may be the happy by product of this. If we just keep learning from the inspiring leaders both inside and outside of our sector and have an open mind towards collaboration.

I’m sure Henry Thoreau would be proud of us for applying these philosophical practices to solve our problems.

Our values are great I hear, but we also need the right culture, leadership and tools to help us achieve our goals. Part 2 coming soon.

Adam Bryan
Adam Bryan
Director of Partnerships & Innovation at the Chartered Institute of Fundraising
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