How can advocacy NGOs become more innovative? Your thoughts, please | Duncan Green

19 Mar 2014

business woman in India The manager of a milk-chilling centre in India, part of a collaboration between UNDP India and the IKEA Foundation launched in 2009 to help empower women socially, economically and politically. (Photo: Graham Crouch/UNDP)

Innovation. Who could be against it? Not even Kim Jong Un, apparently. People working on aid and development spend an increasing time discussing it – what is it? How do we get more of it? Who is any good at it? Innovation Tourette’s is everywhere.

Most of that discussion takes place in areas such as programming (what we do on the ground) or internal management (the unquenchable urge to restructure), drawing on innovation thinking in the private sector, government and academia.

But another (increasingly important) area of our work – advocacy/influencing – feels a bit absent from the innovation circus, so I’ve been asked to crowdsource a few ideas. Help me out here.

In advocacy, we see plenty of innovation already, in new themes (e.g. a range of tax campaigns in the wake of the financial crisis) and players (online outfits such as Avaaz and But we also see a fair amount of business as usual: the cycle of policy papers, recommendations, lobby meetings, media work and consultations grinds on, not always to great effect.

At a higher level, there is lots of really innovative thinking going on about how to operate in complex systems, but that tends to be directed at the big players, with few links to humble NGOs doing single-issue campaigns.

So my question is, how can we be more systematic in supporting innovation in the advocacy work of large international NGOs and other aid organizations?

Some initial thoughts:

Ways of Working/Management

Steal more: If Google and other high tech innovators stay ahead of the curve by buying up startups with new ideas, why don’t we? Annual performance reviews for advocacy staff should include the question: “What ideas have you stolen from smaller, more agile organizations?” After all, when I was at CAFOD, getting Oxfam to steal my ideas was one of my objectives.

Spin-offs: An alternative lesson from Google is to spin off lots of start-ups, and leave them to sink or swim. Over the years, we’ve had some big successes such as New Internationalist or Fairtrade Foundation. Why not make it more systematic?

Change staff culture: In INGOs, it sometimes seems like a badge of honour to be 120 percent committed, but that carries a risk that hard-working advocacy types have no time to read, think or innovate. Contrast that with Google’s famous “20 percent time,” which allows employees to take one day a week to work on side projects.

Embrace risk: Learning from Google (again): the need for aid agencies to consider their operations as a “risk portfolio.” Should we be more explicit in seeking a balance between safe bet activities and high risk/high return moonshots? I fear that currently we try to minimize risk on each separate activity, producing an overall portfolio skewed towards the conservative and low risk/low innovation end.

Get out more: Give people one day a month to visit “the outside world” with no greater agenda than to look and learn. Seek out people who are relevant but different – community organizers, think tanks, faith leaders, even (gasp!) right-wing organizations (after all, they’ve been doing pretty well on the influencing business).

So over to you for links and suggestions, examples of organizations doing consistently innovative advocacy work or anything else you think might help, including your favourite gurus.

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