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Are charities slow to innovate?

Partnerships can enable charities to innovate for rapid progress
Partnerships can enable charities to innovate for rapid progress

Charities often have to provide evidence for the success of previous projects, but does focusing on the past discourage new approaches? Laurinda Luffmann investigates...

Any charity fundraiser will tell you that major donors frequently ask for evidence which shows how money has been successfully used to create 'positive outcomes' in their previous projects. Increasingly, charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) feel the pressure to show how their processes and practices are efficient and effective, so that potential donors are assured new funds will be spent wisely. But in focusing on how things have been done in the past, is there a danger charities are failing to look to the future?

Rewarding innovation

In a recent article for Thomson Reuters, the manager of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund argues that by worrying about efficiency, accountability and standards, charities are losing their ability to take risks and trial new ways of doing things. He believes an evidence-based approach is stifling creativity and innovation. The Fund's remit is to reverse this trend by providing grants to charities and NGOs which are trying to adapt to change by implementing new ideas.

Inevitably, charitable organisations feel they have to exercise caution and prudence when it comes to spending donors' funds. However, many NGOs would argue it is possible to innovate at the same time, particularly where new technology brings clear cost reductions and immediate tangible benefits. So for example, the World Food Programme (WFP) is harnessing technology for new ways of gathering data. Instead of using costly face-to-face interviews to find out about people's  food situations on the ground, in parts of Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the WFP is trialling the mapping of food security via local's mobile phones.

As mobile phone ownership increases across the developing world, mobile applications are also being used by the UN's Child Agency, UNICEF, to share information about child refugees. This speeds up the process of tracing relatives and reuniting children with their families. And in another recent example of the growing use of technology, the Red Cross set up an automatic voice recognition system on a telephone helpline after the earthquake disaster in Haiti. This allowed local people to access advice on a variety of healthcare issues. In its first year, the free phone number received over a million calls.

African countries supported
SOS Children and BT are installing high-speed broadband in Children's Villages across 12 African countries

Sharing the risk

Speaking to Reuters, the manager of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund explained that its purpose was also to encourage charities to "share risks... [and] collaborate and share costs", particularly by acting in partnership with academia and with the private sector.

Certainly, by forming links with business, charities and NGOs can avoid the high costs of areas such as research and development, as well as benefitting from cutting-edge knowledge and specialist expertise and help. So for example, SOS Children has partnered with BT to bring broadband communications to 20 of its Children's Villages across Africa.

Such partnerships should hopefully become easier in the future as more companies develop their corporate responsibility programmes. Charities and NGOs will therefore no doubt be looking to draw more from private sector partners to find the newest and best tools available, whilst keeping risks low and donors happy.