How can advocacy NGOs become more innovative? Your thoughts please.

March 11, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

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 innovationsbeen 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 also 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, such as ODI’s work on hybrid institutions, or Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett on ‘problem driven iterative adaptation’, but that tends to be directed at the big players, like governments, bilateral donors and the World Bank, with few links to humble NGOs doing single issue campaigns.

So my question is, where/how to be more systematic in supporting innovation in the advocacy work of large international NGOs and other aid organizations? The challenge is not just to have the odd new idea, but to run the organization in such a way that they keep flowing. 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% committed, but that carries a risk that hard working advocacy types have no time to read, think or innovate. I am reminded of ‘political coughs’ from the 80s – overwork, no sleep, bad diet + too many roll-ups meant any self respecting activist had a permanent cough and looked like they hadn’t seen daylight for months (they often hadn’t). Contrast that with Google’s famous “20% time,” which allows employees to take one day a week to work on side projects.

Change management culture: Tim Harford, in his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (review here) says ‘Adaptive organizations need to decentralize and become comfortable with the chaos of different local approaches and the awkwardness of dissent from junior staff.’ How to do this? Harford comes up with a ‘Three step recipe for successful adapting: try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; make failure survivable, because it will be common; and make sure that you know when you have failed…… distinguishing success from failure, oddly, can be the hardest task of all.’

Dilbert on innovationEmbrace 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 minimise risk on each separate activity, producing an overall portfolio skewed towards the conservative and low risk/low innovation end.

Who we work with:

Unusual suspects: who cares about our issue and has influence, but is not getting any attention from us? Grey Panthers could be huge, for example, but barely get a look in.

Finding new ideas:

Positive deviance: what advocacy by us or other orgs, has gone better than predicted? Go back and find out why.

Don’t just set up an innovation fund: According to Exfam innovation guru Nicholas Colloff ‘They quickly find themselves subsidizing things that people cannot finance any other way (which may have nothing whatsoever to do with ‘innovation’)!’

Get out more:

Give people a day a month to visit ‘the outside world’ with no greater agenda than to look and learn (and no requirement to bring anything back other than the business cards of the people they meet). The good thing about working with Oxfam is that you can get yourself invited virtually anywhere. Seek out people who are relevant but different – not other NGOistas, but say, community organizers, think tanks, faith leaders even (gasp!) right wing organizations (after all, they’ve been doing pretty well on the influencing business).

Give talks and not simply the apparently ‘important’ ones, or to the usual suspects. I get a lot of new ideas from the increasing number of meetings where I am the only NGO person in the room.

Count the source of your e-mails (even if only for a month) and see how many come from other people in your own organization (prepare to be appalled).

And scariest of all (back to Nicholas): ‘Get them reading the Daily Mail – a penance I know but the most influential paper in the UK and, in fact, difficult to stereotype! In truth, the simple act of reading something you are not familiar with is surprisingly stimulating.’

I think that may be a step too far…

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.

March 11, 2014
Duncan Green