Innovate to survive

Trudy Brasell-Jones, Development Practice Advisor, Australian Council for International Development

13 Oct, 2015

Innovation, innovation, innovation. There is no doubt this word has been overused, so much so that someone has invented a disorder, Innovation Tourettes.  And others have suggested that it be expunged from development speak.

I won’t argue that the word innovation is not overused*, because quite frankly, it is. But it is talked about a lot for a reason - it is critical to the survival of NGOs.

At the ACFID Conference in 2014 the aid and development sector came together to discuss the national and global factors that are changing they way we work – climate change, inequality, urbanisation, the rise of the BRICs, reduced aid funding and the rapid diffusion of communication technologies. Everyone agreed by the end of two days of futures thinking, debates and rumination, that Australian NGOs need some creative solutions for the years ahead.

The ACFID conference this year takes up that discussion to ask how can Australian NGOs be more innovative to meet these global challenges. To initiate discussion, ACFID has commissioned research by Oxfam International’s Global Innovation Advisor, James Whitehead, working with Oxfam Australia and in partnership with Australian Survey Consultancy, Inventium.

The research found that among Australian NGOs, innovation means different things to different people. Some equated innovation with technology, others with collaborative partnerships or new business models, and a few with alternative paradigms. The truth is all these things can be innovation if they lead to change that improves the lives of the poor. This is the key difference of the meaning of innovation in the aid and development sector and the private sector. Innovation is not the purview of the private sector.  And the private sector is not innovation.

The research also found that many Australian NGOs are already innovating. Case studies from ACFID members illustrate NGOs providing appropriate and affordable floating biodigesters for flood affected communities in Cambodia; modelling alternative health programs to combat non communicable diseases in Vanuatu; utilising development impact bonds to fund an eye hospital in Cameroon; influencing the 10 largest global food companies to improve their supply chains; and transforming leadership and coordination in humanitarian responses around the world.

These NGOs don’t innovate because it is a trendy thing to do. They innovate because they have to. They tackle challenging, multi faceted, complex development problems, each set in unique political, cultural, social, geographic and economic contexts, in a resource constrained environment. But how do we take the innovation that is already happening and make that more systematic, embed it into the way we work and scale up the results?

In the Inventium survey of Australian NGO workers, respondents felt innovation was important and it is often talked about in their organisation, however, they also identified a number of barriers: a lack of organisational strategies, processes and structures to support innovation. In its healthcheck of the NGO sector, Inventium has assessed NGOs innovation maturity at the lowest foundation level, so clearly we have some work to do.

I’m hoping the conversation at the ACFID conference this week will allow the sector to develop a shared meaning of the word innovation and that we can come up with ways to enable innovative solutions to create positive change for people in poverty. If we can’t, there is a danger that Australian NGOs will become irrelevant and extinct.

In a recent workshop to discuss the research, one workshop participant proposed that NGOs must, “innovate or die”.  To put a more positive spin on it, I think NGOs need to innovate to survive.

ACFID’s research on Australian NGOs and innovation will be finalised after discussions at our National Conference and publicly released.

*Innovation and its related form was used 25 times in this blog

  • Trudy Brasell-Jones, Development Practice Advisor, Australian Council for International Development
    Trudy Brasell-Jones, Development Practice Advisor, Australian Council for International Development

    Trudy Brasell-Jones has worked with the Australian Council for International Development for four years. She has a very eclectic background in natural resource management, urban planning, teaching and development work and has various degrees in politics, planning, human rights and education. She previously worked for ActionAid and Mercy Corps and has lived in India, Tajikistan, Cambodia and Vietnam


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