Collaboration brings innovation

Collaboration brings innovation
The Guardian, by Ruth Marvel and Owen Jarvis

By supporting the social innovations of others, charities and housing associations could scale their impact and advance their own social missions.

‘Social innovation’ is the catch-all term for good ideas that tackle significant social problems and in recent years there has been an explosion of interest with governments, trusts, foundations and private companies now investing in programmes across the UK. But still, of these fledgling social innovations, precious few are able to reach a scale where they can have a real impact on the problem they are seeking to address.

While investment in early stage innovation is welcome, support to mainstream innovative ideas and maximise their social value is still in its infancy.

In our new report, ‘When Bees Meet Trees’, we argue that large charities and housing associations are perfectly placed to help social innovations scale their impact; and in doing so considerably advance their own social missions. But for many this means putting aside the image of themselves as innovators and changing the way they think, collaborate, and organise themselves.

Innovation is hard, and research shows that most large organisations, regardless of their sector, aren’t very good at it. Innovation involves risk, something that large organisations with big operational functions that rely on donors for vital funds often aren’t comfortable with. Running a large service-delivery focused organisation also requires effective systems, hierarchies and rules: the enemies of creativity.

Furthermore, great innovation is rarely about new ideas, it comes about when existing ideas are applied to new problems or contexts. So innovating within a niche is additionally challenging because there is a smaller pool of experience to draw upon.

We argue that if large charities and housing associations want to access the benefits of innovation they need to identify and support innovations that originate outside their organisation, rather than focusing on developing new ideas from within. Looking beyond their own backyard can give organisations access to more and better tools to tackle social problems and reduce the risks associated with innovating from scratch. It also means they are leveraging the real strengths of being a large organisation – their ‘tree-like’ qualities such as operational scale, networks, influence, brand and human and financial resources.

Working together has its challenges though. Different cultures; and stereotypes of each other, insularity and risk aversion are all barriers to effective partnerships.

However, some organisations are already succeeding; long-standing charity, HACT relaunched itself as a social innovation broker in 2011 after significant funding cuts led them to fundamentally reappraise their purpose and business model. They now provide a B2B service, identifying and testing promising new innovations, such as tech-solutions that help housing associations better map their communities. Part-funded by housing associations themselves, HACT has had to work hard to demonstrate the value it can add and maintain its income levels while reducing its reliance on grant funding.

Children’s charity ARK has acted as an incubator, scale partner and institutional entrepreneur to the Future Leaders Trust, which equips potential head teachers with the practical skills they need to lead challenging schools. ARK has supported the Future Leaders Trust for over four years. It has also helped them make the case to government to prioritise and invest in leadership development in teaching, creating the policy environment in which Future Leaders could expand. For Future Leaders the real challenge as a start-up organisation was getting the venture off the ground. Here the association with the ARK brand was vital, as they could trade on it in the early years when they most needed recognition.

Trailblazers like HACT and Ark are carving out a new, more impactful role for themselves in the emerging world of innovation. There are only a handful of people thinking like them at the moment, but we desperately need more.