Is it better for charities to innovate, or imitate?

Is it better for charities to innovate, or imitate?

Given the current pressures on fundraising, should charities be focusing on innovating or imitating?


Lucy Caldicott, director of fundraising, CLIC Sargeant

Charities must find ways to distinguish themselves from each other in order to succeed. Having a good understanding of the marketplace is important to benchmark and evaluate results, but simply imitating other charities assumes that what works for others will work for your situation.

Fundraisers are natural innovators, but new ideas involve risk and many charities will be nervous at the moment. The key is to create an environment where innovation is encouraged, and where fundraisers have the ability to assess new ideas so that any potential risk is understood and managed. It is also important to protect space and time for innovation or else, not having an immediately obvious cash return, it can be the first thing to slip.

However, innovation doesn’t have to only be about big and shiny new things. Some of the most effective innovations are about building on what exists already, using past results to refine and adapt.


Ken Burnett, managing trustee, The Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration

Why trouble to think of your own big idea if you can borrow someone else’s?

The recycling of innovations always makes sound sense and it’s particularly pertinent in these straitened times. I’ve long advocated creative plagiarism for all but the genuinely innovative as it’s the cheapest, safest and surest route to progress. Watch for what’s working for someone else then move in swiftly to copy, adapt and improve it. Creative plagiarism is innovation too.

Of course, as history shows, the really big prizes tend to come to the originator, the first off the starting blocks. The downside is originators also carry most of the risks, and few charities now have much appetite for risk.

Each organisation needs to formulate an innovations policy appropriate to its aspirations and potential. The worst strategy is not to innovate at all but to sit there, pudding-like, feeding off what previous generations have set in place while everything around slowly atrophies.

These days success comes only to the brave. No guts, no glory.


Laura Bassett, fundraising communications manager, Freedom from Torture

Every new idea you think of, research, develop, test and roll out demands resources.

Sadly, in times like these, despite the passion there’s very little ‘give’ left in people’s roles to bring new ideas to life. So it’s worth focusing instead on good ideas management and fixing the niggly things that have been grating on you ever since your first days on the job. That way the path to innovation will be clear and your innovative ducks will be lined up in rows when the good times come around again.

Meanwhile, imitation can often mean quicker wins than innovation is able to deliver –the R&D is already complete.

Of course you need to be selective in what activities you look to imitate (those with proven results) and creative about how you use them. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery but it’s insulting to the originator and your staff’s abilities not to add your own creative slant.


Robbie Buscombe, individual giving manager, Marie Curie Cancer Care

When it comes to innovation it’s often said there’s no such thing as a new idea, just the reworking of an old one.

This does not mean that imitation is the only way forward for charities, even in hard financial times. New technology enables us to imitate existing channels of fundraising, often more quickly and cheaply, which is increasingly important as we connect further with our world through digital channels.

Innovation therefore isn’t dead, but if imagination isn’t encouraged then a straight imitation is what results.

One way we encourage a culture of innovation is by running ‘The Big Idea’ each year. Staff get the chance to propose ideas for a new fundraising initiative, which are shortlisted by a committee, voted on by all staff and the winning idea is developed.

Innovation needs to be actively encouraged and rewarded. This allows people to be brave and stretch the boundaries, beyond just fundraising.

Lucy Gower, independent fundraising trainer and consultant

The term ‘innovation’ has become a confusing buzzword. Innovation is the development and delivery of something new – for example a product, service or process – that provides a solution to a challenge and/or value to an audience.
So, if you copy someone else’s idea, and it’s new for your organisation, then that imitation ‘counts’ as an innovation. Hurrah.
However, it’s not as simple as just copying an idea that worked elsewhere. It’s understanding and analysing why it worked for that organisation, at that time, and for that organisation’s target audience. Gaining insight about your audience’s needs and the external marketplace is invaluable to good innovation. Imitation, because it worked for someone else, with no understanding or analysis is not innovation. It’s stupid.
The world is changing fast, and charities, like any business should focus their efforts on understanding their audiences and then meeting their needs.
So my answer is both.


This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 17, May 2012

Get the latest fundraising advice and insight

Sign me up