Experimenting and adapting helps NGO improve performance

8 February 2017
Author: Liz Lowther

In May 2016, Bond and innovation consultancy Inventium carried out the first ever Innovation Audit of Bond’s members, which helped them assess how their organisations enable innovation.

Sixty-two organisations were benchmarked against each other and each received individual recommendations for improving their performance.

One of the highest scores in the audit was achieved by Sightsavers, an international charity working to combat blindness in developing countries and restoring sight through specialist treatment and eye care. In the third in our series of blogs and interviews, Liz Lowther, Bond’s head of innovation and learning, talks to Dr Imran A. Khan, chief global technical lead at Sightsavers.

LL: Why do you think Sightsavers scored highly in Bond’s Innovation Audit?

IK: Innovation is not a new area at Sightsavers – we have been focusing on it since 2011 when we ringfenced £2.25m of our PPA funding for innovative projects. We ran two funding rounds:  the first focused on innovation within Sightsavers, and the second was opened up to applications from other NGOs, academic institutions, research organisations, and the private sector. Having funded five projects in round one, we received 477 applications in round two! Of these, we funded 14 projects, all focused on innovation within Sightsavers’ core themes of eye health, education and social inclusion. We learnt a lot from these projects and were able to integrate some of this learning into our own core projects. We are now focused on aligning innovation within Sightsavers’ strategic approach so that we can scale up innovative solutions within our existing programmes.

LL: What have you learnt from your efforts to be a more innovative organisation?

The key to success is finding the right balance between creating space for innovation and delivering projects.

Innovation for innovation’s sake won’t be carried forward – you need to show how innovative approaches can lead to successful projects and link to your wider strategic objectives. A good example of this within Sightsavers has been our work on making eye health programmes more inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. We started by creating a safe space for innovation within our programme in Bhopal,  which enabled us to come up with a new model and learn from it without putting in a huge amount of resource. You have to start small-scale and try out ideas that may or may not be successful, adapting as you go. Having gathered the learnings from our Bhopal experiment, we are now creating a standard toolkit which can be rolled out across our programmes in 2017.

LL: What was the main learning for you from the Innovation Audit, and what are you doing to build on the findings and continue to innovate?

IK: At Sightsavers, our next step is to embed a more formalised process around innovation into our work, encompassing how we capture ideas, experiment and evaluate. One interesting finding from the audit was the clear correlation between the amount of unrestricted income an organisation has and its ability to take risks and innovate.  This is true - but Sightsavers has also been able to integrate innovative approaches within specific projects that have restricted funding. Our Global Trachoma Mapping Project is one example.  

LL: What advice would you give other organisations seeking to become more innovative?

I think there is a fear of failure within the sector, so starting small and adapting quickly can help mitigate this. You have to constantly monitor and be ready to address risks.  The people in your organisation have to be willing to go along with it and to work differently – it helps to approach innovation as a change management process. And you need to measure the difference it makes. Above all, don’t do innovation for innovation’s sake but ensure you identify challenges and use innovative approaches to address them in a way that aligns with organisational strategy. Innovation is a pathway to get to the final destination, not the destination itself.

Read Imran's prediction for 2017 on how health will be integrated into development agendas.

Learn more about creating a culture of innovation in your organisation at the Bond Conference on 20 March.  

About the author

Liz Lowther

Liz Lowther is Bond's interim head of innovation and learning.