Innovation is vital if charities and social enterprises are to keep pace with change and to continue tackling the social, economic and environmental problems our society faces.

For NPC, innovation is the process of applying the three ‘I’s—information, imagination and initiative—to produce greater values from resources. For non-profits, innovation is therefore about creating new products, processes or approaches to maximise their social impact. For donors and funders, it is about new products, processes or approaches that enable money to be given or invested more wisely or more easily.

As we have seen in our work, innovation can be a process as straightforward as borrowing and adapting a model from one country to another or re-applying an approach from the public or private context in a non-profit environment. Technological developments have fuelled the rise in many innovations, such as crowd-funding or data-driven analysis, but there are many that are less reliant on technology.

In order to build a culture of innovation, we believe that greater openness to sharing information, data and resources, is key. As examples like the Glasspockets initiative and 360 Giving show, transparency can help with everything from spotting where an innovation is needed, to testing whether a new approach is working or not.

Overcoming a fear of failure is vital too. Of course, discovering that a project or activity has failed to meet its goals is rarely a pleasant experience, but there are some important benefits. Responding positively when something fails—acknowledging it, talking about it and learning and sharing lessons—can help you get it right next time. As Winston Churchill put it: ‘Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm‘.

Many charities worry that their donors and supporters will be put off by failure, but NPC’s Matter of trust polling of the public may allay some of these concerns. We found that 78% of people say their support for an organisation will not be affected if they learn about a failure. Indeed, many charities have found that being open about plans going awry can build, rather than damage, stakeholders’ trust. For our part, NPC makes a point of talking about things that haven’t worked in its annual reports and in public forums, and we are committed to encouraging greater transparency about failure in ours and others’ work.

NPC might go so far as to say that if an organisation isn’t failing then perhaps it isn’t innovating enough. Innovation is, after all, a risky business. But in our fast-changing world, simply doing what you’ve done before may no longer cut it.

This piece was originally written for the joint NPC and ActionAid UK essay collection Insights on innovation

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