When fundraising income at Terrence Higgins Trust started to decline, they realised they needed to take a fresh approach to innovation - and that appointing innovation champions was the solution.
Sonya Trivedy, fundraising director at Terrence Higgins Trust, admits that in the past her perception of innovation was wrong. “Because we have this quite edgy brand and are probably less conservative than many other organisations, we thought we were an innovative charity. It wasn’t until we did some portfolio analysis work that we realised that actually we weren’t innovating. We weren’t genuinely thinking about the donor, or properly thinking about the business focus and what’s going on in the marketplace.”
Income from the charity’s fundraising activities was in decline, and so Sonya called in the experts at Moving Thinking. “Together, we looked at our product lifecycle, and we realised that a lot of our products were in the mature phase. When we looked at the ideas stage and test stage, we didn’t actually have anything there. And we realised that if we didn’t start putting stuff in there, we would continue on a trajectory of decline.”
The charity’s annual gala dinner, for example, although renowned in the sector, was failing to bring in the returns. “We were constantly tweaking the event, and thought that by doing so we were keeping up with the times and doing something unique. But actually, income from the event was massively in decline.
“It was such an enlightening process, realising we needed to make this big step change.”
The organisation knew they would have to look again at all the products in their portfolio, and ask themselves which of them need refreshing, which need ditching entirely, and where there might be gaps that needed filling with new products. But how they would go about building the resources and expertise to do this was the real question.
Working with consultancy Good Innovation, the charity looked at different models for innovation across the voluntary and the commercial sector. “As a medium-sized organisation that lacks the budgets that some of the larger charities have for innovation, we had to figure out what would work for us and for our budget”, says Sonya.
The organisation decided it wanted to put together a team of innovation champions, one from each of its six main fundraising disciplines.
“We had various people apply, from manager level through to officer level. We quite clearly laid out the expectations - we knew this would be a lot of extra work for them, but at the same time it would be an excellent development opportunity.”
Charlotte Senior, who works in the organisation’s corporate fundraising team, was one of those appointed. She says: “I saw it as a new opportunity for personal development. You’re learning new disciplines, which is really valuable, and working with other teams which helps build relationships and increases cross-selling potential.
“It also seemed like a really good opportunity to have a real impact and to effect real change in terms of increasing our fundraising income. It was really exciting.”
The training for the role was very much on-the-job, says Sonya. “To get them trained up, they first took an innovation challenge that wasn’t business critical. This really helped them gain that understanding of what the processes were. Then, once they were fully trained up, they were unleashed onto more business-critical innovation challenges.”
The innovation process
So how do these innovation challenges manifest themselves?
“We decided we’d work on four innovation challenges a year”, says Sonya. “The challenges would come from the portfolio analysis work we’d done, trying to identify areas where we needed to be doing things more effectively, or where we needed to put in a completely brand new product."
Each challenge has a project sponsor, a project manager, and an innovation champion who helps lead the team, always on a rotation basis.
Because all of the main fundraising disciplines are represented, and because each challenge is for a different area of fundraising, it means all the teams get to learn about innovation, Sonya explains. “It’s really helped to achieve a culture of innovation across all our fundraising.
“Now, when our teams have got some kind of innovation challenge, they don’t wait necessarily for it to go into the big innovation approach; they do what we call ‘minnovations’, where they will take a mini challenge and between them work out a process for addressing it.”
Becoming more donor-centric
Critically, says Sonya, the organisation’s fundraising teams have become a lot more donor-centric since the programme was implemented. “Rather than all sit around in a room with a load of post-it notes trying to figure out how to solve a problem, they will actually call up donors and ask them about a particular area of work. They will go to the genuine insight. That’s really helped the process.”
Charlotte highlights one particular example of how this new donor-centric approach has benefitted the teams. “In one challenge, we looked at World Aids Day as an event. We put it through the innovation process, and we came out with some very valuable knowledge. We spoke to about 40 or 50 of our community event supporters - a good cross-section - and it transpired that actually our supporters don’t want to fundraise on World Aids Day; they want to keep it as a day of remembrance and reflection. There just wasn’t the appetite for fundraising. So that saved us from putting loads of time and resource into organising a big fundraising event on World Aids Day that wasn't wanted or needed.”
Charlotte says she and her team mates have found that supporters are always really happy to be approached for their views and feedback. “People love being asked their opinions”, she says.
Sonya says that appointing innovation champions is a very effective solution for an organisation of its size. “We’ve had some fantastic results” she says. “For example, we put the gala dinner through our innovation process and managed to increase our income from it from £320k to £520k. That’s a massive difference in terms of the income we’re able to generate.
“Not only this, but the people who have trained as our innovation champions have learned so much - as indeed have the rest of the teams”, says Sonya.
Charlotte says the experience has been a very rewarding one for her. “When I was project managing, I really felt a sense of ownership. And a lot of the work you do as innovation champion can be applied to your day job; that knowledge and experience changes the way you look at things. My manager is always happy for me to be doing this because she knows I come out of my sessions really bubbling and happy and excited to get stuck into my job. It really ignites your passion for the organisation.
“Speaking to supporters too, and holding focus groups and even getting other members of staff into a creative session, it’s so great in terms of relationship building, getting to know each other better, and getting to know our supporters better too.”
Driving innovation with insight
Charlotte thinks many other charities could benefit from taking a similar approach to innovation. “Absolutely charities should do some of this kind of work. Insight is the key thing; you can’t just think of an idea and hope it will work, it has to be based on what your supporters want.
“I think a lot of people think it costs a lot of money to drive innovation, and that they don’t have the capacity or resources for it. But it can be done on a really small scale as well as a really big scale. You can do it on a shoestring.
“It will change the way you work for the better, definitely”, she concludes.
Jenny Ramage is editor of The Fundraiser