Distinguishing innovation

Expectations_Rise - sWhat charities should learn from Jamie Oliver…

Within the media stories about Jamie Oliver’s restaurant chain going into administration, are hidden lessons for many charities.

Just over a year ago, as part of a short video series I made for business clients, I recorded a three-minute piece on the real reason that once-distinguished businesses, including various high-profile restaurant chains, were coming under huge financial pressure. That reason is as relevant to non-profits as it is to businesses, possibly more so. You can watch that video here if you wish.

The thrust of those three minutes, in two words, is this: expectations rise.

What was once cutting-edge can quickly become run-of-the-mill. However innovative an idea once was, tastes, aspirations and expectations change. No organisation can rest on its laurels and cutting costs is rarely a sustainable response to competition, which is why organisations need to keep innovating, keep raising the bar, if they’re going to avoid being overtaken by the expectations set by more innovative others.

Pioneers break a trail that others inevitably follow, and those followers invariably represent competition: for share of market, share of funding, share of attention and voice. Third sector organisations increasingly talk a good game on innovation and collaboration, and there are definitely some bright spots of it, but in many areas, particularly where there are private sector players as well, the reality is one of competition. That may not be the reality that we’d wish for, but it’s the reality in which we operate.

In a competitive space, being average means being under constant, unsustainable financial pressure, as Jamie’s Italian should comprehensively demonstrate, and there are only two routes out of that pressure: by being the lowest price (and by implication, the lowest cost), or by being distinctly better than everyone else in a way that matters, a way that can be readily distinguished and is desired by whomever is paying.

It’s unlikely that a charity could, or even would want to be, the lowest cost operator – the required balancing act on quality is not an attractive proposition for any trustee or mission-driven employee when delivering for beneficiaries. Which means that the solution for sustainability depends on distinctiveness and innovation, on a unique appeal that plays to, and takes further, the aspirations and expectations emerging for beneficiaries, in a way that funders can recognise and buy into.

Financing innovation has never been easy, but with the increasing recognition of Social Value and the availability of Social Finance, it’s potentially a lot easier than it has been in the past. And the alternative, of slugging it out in fundraising or in competitive bidding for commoditised activities with a dozen other organisations, is only ever going to get harder.

Competition may be the stick, but beneficiary value is a compelling carrot for charities who have the will and the appetite to take risks; to develop new solutions and to break new trails for others to follow. Innovating new ways to solve persistent problems is one of the things that distinguishes the third sector from any other.

So, to what extent does your track record of pioneering visible, impactful innovation, distinguish your charity, clearly and compellingly, in the hearts and minds of those whose money and support you’re going to need? And how are you making that count?

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