Innovation in Fundraising: Why, How, What, When? (Part 2)
How should charities innovate?
This is part two in a four-part series on innovation in fundraising. View part one here.
In part one, we discussed one of the memes du jour: innovation. Is "same/old" fundraising a problem? If so, then why? What lies at the heart of the drive to innovate? We began by looking at the opinions of Joe Jenkins at Plymouth University Critical Fundraising blog and Derek Humphries at 101fundraising. I hold them both in the highest esteem; they made me want to take the innovation discussion a bit further! So, let’s move deeper into the innovation laboratory and do a little dissecting of the old adage that "change is good."
How is it good in the context of nonprofit fundraising, marketing and management?
How do you know you’re changing in the right direction? And at the right time?
I'm a firm believer in challenging the status quo, as long as that does not ipso facto mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Sometimes innovation simply means gaining a deeper understanding about what’s working, and what could be improved upon.
I don’t think we need to "innovate away from each other" as Joe suggested. I'd rather see us dig into innovative strategies we find elsewhere and figure out what made them work.
For example, the Ice Bucket Challenge was not really replicable. But there were many lessons to be learned as to why it worked. (The best books I've read on why things catch on and stick around continue to be "The Tipping Point," by Malcom Gladwell and "Made to Stick," by Chip and Dan Health.)
Trying to find other strategies that trigger the same responses as strategies that work elsewhere is the way to learn and move forward with conscious intention.
What is innovation, after all? It certainly shouldn't mean doing something new just for the sake of doing something new. That new is better, again, is a value judgment.
In another opinion offered on Plymouth's Critical Fundraising blog, Ian MacQuillan wrote about how innovation can be viewed as a continuum from incremental, through radical to transformative (page six of Dodgson and Gann's "Innovation – A Short Introduction"). MacQuillan wrote about the "paucity of innovative thinking to solve 'big picture' issues"—which, I would argue, is not what most fundraisers are concerned with when they find a new idea to borrow or a best practice to emulate.
Most fundraisers are primarily looking for a strategy that will raise money, not a strategy that will radically change the way fundraising is done.
MacQuillan largely agreed. He asked whether fundraising innovation needed to shift out of its normative, value-laden mindset (innovation for the sake of it) into something more closely resembling strategic adaptation. He noted:
It's not unusual to hear proponents of innovation misappropriate [Charles] Darwin. "Innovate or die," they say, whereas a truer interpretation of Darwinian principles is "adapt or die," since the motivating force of evolution by natural selection is adaptation, not innovation. Organisms adapt to a changing environment; but they don’t innovate a new body design just because they haven’t done anything new for a few million years if they don’t need to (ask the shark, which has become the top oceanic predator using a body plan that’s remained pretty much unchanged for the past 350 million years, because it is so well adapted to is environment).
What does often make sense for most charities is incremental innovation.
Variations on a theme. But, again, not just variation for variation’s sake. Rather, variation that will be reasonably expected to improve upon the original idea based on (1) what is known about why it worked in a current or previous setting, and (2) why it might work differently in your setting—moving forward.
If something is working really well, is it necessarily productive to set aside time for an "Innovation Think Tank" meeting to figure out how to change it up? It may make you feel really cutting-edge, but there are two sides to every blade. Could that time be better spent elsewhere—like taking another face-to-face meeting with a donor?
Charities must become better informed and more enlightened about the strategies they adopt, keep and/or adapt.
There's a lot of talk today about moving from transactional to transformative fundraising when our focus is on the donors (i.e., beyond one-time gifts to life-long, loyal relationships). But what about moving from transactional strategies to adaptive strategies—whether that adaptation be incremental, radical or transformative, as the situation may dictate.
To be fair to both Ian MacQuillan and Joe Jenkins, they’re part of Rogare—the Fundraising Think Tank at the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. Their jobs are to think "big picture" and to ponder ways to address seemingly intractable problems, such as how to improve the public perception of fundraising, increase donor retention and grow charitable giving overall. So innovation that is transformative makes sense on the scale they’re working. It’s a big challenge, and an honorable mission. Individual charities, however, have a different mission.
For most charities already doing a good job, incremental change may be their best way to move from good to great.
MacQuillan said: "To successfully tackle the big issues, we need to start thinking more innovatively about innovation." That’s a mouthful, but I say the same holds true to solve the small- and medium-sized issues. There’s nothing inherently bad—or good—about innovation. Certainly, it shouldn’t be used as a rationale to replace a successful practice simply because it’s been around for a long time.
Innovation finds its raison d'etre when what you're doing is causing you to stay still (status quo) or fall back (you’re losing donors, dollars, and perhaps even volunteers and staff).
If you're leaving money on the table, and your best—and most generous—fans are walking away from you, it's time to ask yourself some critical questions about each of your core fundraising, marketing communications and nonprofit management strategies. Don’t "innovate" because that, alone, makes you feel like you’re doing something good.
Innovate because you’re sure it will get you to a better place.
Innovation is best when it moves you toward something, not away from something. Don’t throw things out just for the sake of cleaning house; first figure out what’s good to keep based on the situation you’re in today.
Perhaps I needed 35 pounds of toys, 10 pairs of sweats and plastic-covered sofas when my children were young. Today, not so much. I need to make space for work clothes and space where I’d be comfortable entertaining. Perhaps I thought I needed my wardrobe filled with shoulder pads and pencil skirts back in the '80s. Today, I need to make space for some comfy skinny pants, thin, warm sweaters and non-wrinkle travel clothes. Consider where the holes are in your metaphorical home or closet, and what you need to add to your collection.
I hate to see nonprofits kicking themselves simply for not being innovative enough.
The real question is how they’re learning, and whether they’re evolving and working smarter and smarter.
Stay tuned for part three of this four-part series, where we’ll begin to explore the key strategic fundraising questions you should be asking and get practical about what to do to move forward thoughtfully.