Innovation is a buzzword throughout development circles, from large institutional grant making organizations to grassroots NGOs. In its simplest term, innovation is using new or novel ideas and approaches to solve existing problems.
Many donors ask about innovation in the application because innovation forces NGOs into thinking differently and more creatively about how to utilize their resources and environment.
While an increasing number of donors want to know how innovative an organization or project is, it is often unclear what exactly donors regard as innovative projects.
Many donors are very experienced and have worked in the development sector for decades, so innovation can be seen as something new and interesting.
However, donors also tend to be very risk-adverse, and trying something new is inherently risky. So, the challenge here for applicants is two-fold: finding something new that is also proven to work. How is this seeming contradiction possible?
Notice that donors ask for innovation, not invention. An invention is something entirely new which has never been done or seen before. An innovation is a change or modification to improve something that already exists.
For example, Thomas Edison is credited for the invention of the lightbulb in 1879, however generations of lightbulb innovations have created the millions of different and improved lightbulbs in use today.
So, donors are not asking for something entirely new, but improvement or expansion of something that is already in use.
There are many different ways an organization or project could be innovative:
- Programmatic: Where the project uses new techniques or technologies to reach impact. E.g., an organization decides to focus on men when addressing gender inequality.
- Financial: Where the organization uses novel ways to attract resources to the project. E.g., an NGO develops a membership model to attract small donations from beneficiaries.
- Institutional: Where the organization changes its operational processes and structures to accelerate impact. E.g., a social enterprise chooses to do away with supervisors and have staff decide all work activities in collaborative teams.
- Policy: Where innovative policies can be brought about by the project. E.g. a local government implements a higher tax on cigarettes and uses the proceeds for anti-smoking campaigns.
- Partnership: Where the organization starts working with new and unusual partners. E.g. an NGO partners with a trade union to address violence against women.
- Technology: Where a new technology is used for impact. E.g. a group uses mobile phones to give hyper localized weather condition reports to rural farmers.
- Communication: Where the organization uses a new channel to communicate with beneficiaries and others. E.g. a teachers’ group uses Facebook to reach out-of-school youth.
When writing innovation into a proposal, be careful to understand the donor’s preferences. Some donors are specifically looking to only fund innovative projects, while for others, innovation is of much less importance. Keep these donor preferences in mind when determining how much emphasis to place on innovation in the proposal.