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Innovative NGOs: It is not a matter of luck!

Photo (CSA): Participants modelling challenges using Lego Serious Play

For many national and international development NGOs, Innovation is becoming a more and more important topic. There are two main reasons for this:

Firstly, there is a realization that Development NGOs do not appear to be very innovative. Innovation is not a priority among staff and donors, who would rather emphasize on solid work and results in the field. "Pilots" often do not go beyond small projects and even if there are successful trials of new approaches, they are rarely mainstreamed in the organisation or taken to scale. The notion that Development NGOs re-invent the wheel over and over again is something we hear all the time.

Secondly, many businesses have embraced innovation, developed a culture of innovation, and have strong innovation processes that are critical to product development and new business opportunities. Innovation is a key driver of businesses, and this is also true for social businesses. The rapid emergence of social enterprises and corresponding eco-systems that support them, put pressure on more traditional NGOs. In this context, one question remains: How can NGOs remain cutting-edge and become more innovative?

During the last few years, some larger international NGOs have started employing innovation managers, adapted more systematic innovation processes and also invest more money in developing innovations. Welthungerhilfe embarked on such a journey nearly two years ago - quite successfully. And the CSA team supported this process.

Here are a few takeaways that could help other organisations including smaller NGOs become more innovative:

1. Define innovation as a core process

Good ideas do not result in impactful initiatives and scale unless innovation is understood as a core process just like implementing projects or raising funds. Innovation requires systematic support throughout its development. And someone needs to have a process map, and follow it up.

Photo (CSA/WHH): Welthungerhilfe´s Innovation Process
Photo (CSA/WHH): Welthungerhilfe´s Innovation Process

We propose a simple process with three phases and six steps.

  • Develop: Start by developing ideas into promising solutions or prototypes. This can be done through screening the organisation for innovations, a call for innovations, or through innovation workshops that help the people to explore ideas and develop viable concepts.

  • Pilot: The selection of the most promising concepts has to go hand in hand with awarding some funds for a pilot phase. This phase takes between 6 months and 2 years, depending on the complexity of the concept. The estimated costs are between €20,000 and €100,000 per pilot. Dedicated people that work on the pilot as well as adequate support is essential for the piloting phase. At the end of this phase, the innovator has to be able to "make the case" and convince partners, their own organisation or investors of the impact or potential of the innovation.

  • Create impact: Only if the case is convincing, the innovation is taken to the next level. Developing an initiative could mean either mainstreaming the innovation in the organisations (for instance a new recruitment process), building an NGO programme around the innovation (for instance for a new behavioral change communication method), or developing a social enterprise (for instance for new ways of marketing farm produce). In any case, the final objective is to scale the impact of the innovation. Scaling impact does not necessarily mean that the initiative has to be large as well.

It is a leadership task to ensure that the process is followed through and that the innovators have sufficient resources and support throughout the process. Every innovation needs innovators or innovation drivers that accompany them. You should screen your organisation for such innovation drivers: they are creative, they are doers and have perseverance.

2. Using the right tools

There are great tools and concepts for each of the phases of the innovation process. Here are the most critical ones:

Design Thinking:

Design thinking is used mainly in the first phase of the innovation process - to develop new concepts or to reframe existing programmes. To come up with new prototypes, Welthungerhilfe was supported by the German Marketing Consultancy "Sturm und Drang". Based on their extensive experience in design thinking, they helped Welthungerhilfe plan and implement innovation camps.

Photo (WHH): Design thinking process used in innovation camps

Photo (WHH): Design thinking process used in innovation camps

Listed below are the differences between such design thinking processes and other planning or research and development processes:

  • The uncompromising focus on "customers" or the "target group", is the most revolutionary aspect of design thinking, especially for people working in Civil Society. It is not a shallow view on the needs of the people, but a detailed exploration of people, and their articulated - and inarticulated - needs.

  • It is a clearly defined collaborative process that ends with developing and testing rapid prototypes. The best prototypes are then piloted in the real world.

  • The synergies created through a group of creative people from diverse backgrounds that can bring in trends, practices, and models from other sectors and spaces.

  • There are tangible outcomes: Finally, to see the amazing innovations we have been able to create to date, please explore the links below the article.

If you want to learn more about design thinking we recommend the Coursera course Design Thinking for Innovation by Jeanne M. Liedtka, University of Virginia. She has also published a number of great books on innovation.


This concept is adopted from lean start-ups (see for instance Eric Ries, 2011). Products or innovations should be introduced to the target group at an early stage to receive early feedback. With design thinking, the focus is on the "customer" and his or her experiences with the proposed solution. Is it really addressing a critical issue for the "customer"? Could there be a demand? How exactly could a good solution look like? Build -measure-learn means improving the prototype on an ongoing basis.

Two things are specifically discouraged:

  1. Spending too much time and money to build the perfect prototype, and

  2. Packing a lot of different functions or ideas in one prototype. Instead, focusing on one or a few core functions or solutions is encouraged.

NGOs can learn a lot from this cycle. Usually, development agencies are guided in their implementation by logical frameworks that are developed, often in much detail, at the beginning of a project. Usually, such a log-frame is implemented with smaller amendments for years. Managers often apply a rather inflexible management system, in which deep reflections are rare and large changes in the concept are discouraged.

In contrast, build-measure-learn or adaptive management includes reflections and re-planning in much shorter intervals and the process can have many twists and turns as per the feedback and the development of the key metrics. The only constant is finding an applicable solution to a critical customer need.

Develop Scaling Paths:

Even if one has developed a really good prototype, which did well in the piloting phase, this does not mean it will also flourish and create a large-scale impact. Developing scaling paths for innovation helps. Such scaling paths can include:

  • horizontal scaling of a product or a process, which refers to the geographic expansion or including new target groups, and

  • vertical scaling, which refers to the legal, policy or budgetary changes needed to scale the innovation at a sub-national or national level

Many strategic considerations are needed to define a scaling path: Do we need to adapt the prototype for scaling? What type of financing is required and how the team and partnerships need to evolve?

A clear plan is required which includes similar components as a business plan or a project plan. Here are the dimensions developed by "Boston Consulting Group" (BCG), a global management consulting firm, which are used to develop scaling paths for Welthungerhilfe.

Photo (WHH): Dimensions of a scaling path
Photo (WHH): Dimensions of a scaling path

3. Supporting and employing strong innovators

Experimenting with innovation, defining processes, and using tools in an organisation helps in building a broader understanding of its importance for driving progress and impact. In Welthungerhilfe, we have realised that after only one or two years of systematic work on innovation processes, there has been a remarkable difference in the perception of staff members when it comes to innovation. Innovation is no longer an abstract concept and there are vivid cases many are excited about. And to many, it is attractive to work in an innovative team. The organisational culture is changing.

I was recently asked whether becoming innovative can be learned. I said, yes, just like other competencies it can be learned - to a certain degree. We have seen in our innovation workshops that participants that have often worked on prototypes and design thinking, become virtuous: they have good ideas, better ability to integrate ideas of others, look beyond the usual, and also become better prototypers. Many of these attributes are related to the tools of collaboration and design thinking, but exposure is as important. In the end, most innovations happen by transferring ideas from one sector or location to another, or by merging solutions and adapting them to a new context. Thus, innovation can be fostered by bringing people with diverse experiences into the organisations, and by exposing the existing staff to different sectors and solutions.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that everyone becomes or has to become a strong innovator. Strong innovators are not only creative and innovative but have perseverance and outstanding management skills as well. They drive innovation from idea to scale and enjoy the freedom to work on new initiatives and exciting topics.

Usually, strong innovators are just a very small part of the workforce in an organisation and for many organisations it is ok to have only a handful of them. Supporting and encouraging those few innovators is a very critical leadership task. To truly thrive, they need to have a dynamic, flexible, and understanding eco-system.


Anna Kröger (22.02.2018): Innovative Ideas to Fight Hunger, in Welthungerhilfe blog.

Eric Ries (2011): The Lean Startup - How Today´s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Business

About the Author:

Joachim Schwarz started his career with the UN before shifting to Civil Society. In Welthungerhilfe, he worked in leadership positions in Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, and as Regional Director for South Asia. Joachim is passionate about Civil Society and has been a main engine of the Civil Society Academy since its inception in 2014.


If you would like to give feedback, or are interested in our courses or support.

Please contact: Joachim Schwarz

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