How can advocacy NGOs become more innovative? Your thoughts please.

Innovation. Who could be against it? Not even Kim Jong Un, apparently. People working on aid and development spend an increasing time discussing it – what is it? How do we get more of it? Who is any good at it? Innovation Tourette’s is everywhere.

Most of that discussion takes place in areas such as programming (what we do on the ground) or internal management (the unquenchable urge to restructure), drawing on innovation thinking in the private sector, government and academia.

But another (increasingly important) area of our work – advocacy/influencing – feels a bit absent from the innovation circus, so I’ve innovationsbeen asked to crowdsource a few ideas. Help me out here.

In advocacy, we see plenty of innovation already, in new themes (e.g. a range of tax campaigns in the wake of the financial crisis) and players (online outfits such as Avaaz and, but also a fair amount of business as usual: the cycle of policy papers, recommendations, lobby meetings, media work and consultations grinds on, not always to great effect.

At a higher level, there is lots of really innovative thinking going on about how to operate in complex systems, such as ODI’s work on hybrid institutions, or Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett on ‘problem driven iterative adaptation’, but that tends to be directed at the big players, like governments, bilateral donors and the World Bank, with few links to humble NGOs doing single issue campaigns.

So my question is, where/how to be more systematic in supporting innovation in the advocacy work of large international NGOs and other aid organizations? The challenge is not just to have the odd new idea, but to run the organization in such a way that they keep flowing. Some initial thoughts:

Ways of Working/Management

Steal more: If Google and other high tech innovators stay ahead of the curve by buying up startups with new ideas, why don’t we? Annual performance reviews for advocacy staff should include the question: ‘what ideas have you stolen from smaller, more agile organizations?’ After all, when I was at CAFOD, getting Oxfam to steal my ideas was one of my objectives.

Spin offs: An alternative lesson from Google is to spin off lots of start ups, and leave them to sink or swim. Over the years, we’ve had some big successes such as New Internationalist or Fairtrade Foundation. Why not make it more systematic?

Change staff culture: In INGOs, it sometimes seems like a badge of honour to be 120% committed, but that carries a risk that hard working advocacy types have no time to read, think or innovate. I am reminded of ‘political coughs’ from the 80s – overwork, no sleep, bad diet + too many roll-ups meant any self respecting activist had a permanent cough and looked like they hadn’t seen daylight for months (they often hadn’t). Contrast that with Google’s famous “20% time,” which allows employees to take one day a week to work on side projects.

Change management culture: Tim Harford, in his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (review here) says ‘Adaptive organizations need to decentralize and become comfortable with the chaos of different local approaches and the awkwardness of dissent from junior staff.’ How to do this? Harford comes up with a ‘Three step recipe for successful adapting: try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; make failure survivable, because it will be common; and make sure that you know when you have failed…… distinguishing success from failure, oddly, can be the hardest task of all.’

Dilbert on innovationEmbrace risk: Learning from Google (again): the need for aid agencies to consider their operations as a ‘risk portfolio’. Should we be more explicit in seeking a balance between safe bet activities and high risk/high return moonshots? I fear that currently we try to minimise risk on each separate activity, producing an overall portfolio skewed towards the conservative and low risk/low innovation end.

Who we work with:

Unusual suspects: who cares about our issue and has influence, but is not getting any attention from us? Grey Panthers could be huge, for example, but barely get a look in.

Finding new ideas:

Positive deviance: what advocacy by us or other orgs, has gone better than predicted? Go back and find out why.

Don’t just set up an innovation fund: According to Exfam innovation guru Nicholas Colloff ‘They quickly find themselves subsidizing things that people cannot finance any other way (which may have nothing whatsoever to do with ‘innovation’)!’

Get out more:

Give people a day a month to visit ‘the outside world’ with no greater agenda than to look and learn (and no requirement to bring anything back other than the business cards of the people they meet). The good thing about working with Oxfam is that you can get yourself invited virtually anywhere. Seek out people who are relevant but different – not other NGOistas, but say, community organizers, think tanks, faith leaders even (gasp!) right wing organizations (after all, they’ve been doing pretty well on the influencing business).

Give talks and not simply the apparently ‘important’ ones, or to the usual suspects. I get a lot of new ideas from the increasing number of meetings where I am the only NGO person in the room.

Count the source of your e-mails (even if only for a month) and see how many come from other people in your own organization (prepare to be appalled).

And scariest of all (back to Nicholas): ‘Get them reading the Daily Mail – a penance I know but the most influential paper in the UK and, in fact, difficult to stereotype! In truth, the simple act of reading something you are not familiar with is surprisingly stimulating.’

I think that may be a step too far…

So over to you for links and suggestions, examples of organizations doing consistently innovative advocacy work or anything else you think might help, including your favourite gurus.

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26 Responses to “How can advocacy NGOs become more innovative? Your thoughts please.”
  1. Paul-Andre Wilton

    I’m reminded of a creative thinking course that I once attended, where they encouraged us to solve a problem in one industry by looking at the activities of another sector. The example they gave was how one hospital redesigned its operating room equipment and staff(for scalpels etc.) based on an F1 Pit Lane crew with great results. Other fun tricks for creative discussions were making a lit of rules that defined your product or process, (i.e. shampoo had to be in a bottle) and then breaking one key rule and seeing where it takes you.
    However, I agree the single best thing we could do is to go out and take ideas from national organisations and bring them into the international sphere, instead of talking to each other all the time. What could we learn from youth employment programmes in the UK that could feed into the design of economic empowerment programming elsewhere? Probably a great deal.

  2. Ines

    On the change required for management culture: what about the old fashioned dismantling of hyerarchies? Don’t they exist, by definition, to keep the status quo and thus contain ‘innovation’? Don’t managers in most institutions claim for themeselves technical knowledge that they do not possess and then take uninformed decisions detrimental to progressive change? In Oxfam we have been playing this game for years on issues of women’s rights: on one hand we claim to ‘put women’s rights at the heart of all we do’ and on the other managers are very reluctant to talk of women’s rights (apparently only the rights of poor women are worth fighting for); managers keep deciding on forms of communication and fundraising that contradict our more progressive positions on gender equality; and they seem incredibly resistant to instituting mechanisms to make all of us accountable on women’s rights commitments (from gender budgets, to markers, even on all of us having specific ‘performance objsectives’ on this). So perhaps it is more than ‘management culture’ that needs changing but managment structures?

  3. Dieter Zinnbauer

    Very interesting! I am working on emerging issues for TI and here three ideas that might fit in:

    – Go historic: we know history does not repeat, but we have been told it rhymes. In any case, it certainly offers such an amazing source of inspiration. Cutting-edge governance mechanisms from 14th century Italy anyone?

    Go fictional: nothing ever invented has not been foreshadowed in fiction writing, but science fiction is only a small part here: delve into the best novels, movies, even poetry: no policy report or scientific paper, no political economy analysis will ever provide you with anything that comes even close to the richness and compelling depiction of the complexities of social problems, human agency, institutional dilemmas…
    And your trawl for new ideas is off to a fun start

    Get mugged instead of go mugging. Make every attempt to have your ideas stolen by others, see how they morph and re-appropriate the new features that others had added and you would have never thought about (you might call this approach main-streaming to make it at least a bit palatable from an MEL perspective)
    E.g. something that I am developing here has found its way here without me knowing about it. So I am really excited to see where this goes and what we can learn from it.
    And then there are the really low hanging fruits that we might not have all picked yet: short term staff exchanges across NGOs (and non NGOs) from very different areas? a collaborative wall of idea?..

  4. David

    If you think of innovation as the flow of new ideas through the organization, I think that your third-to-last and second-to-last are the most valuable. Talk to people who think differently, who aren’t necessarily stakeholders in your understanding of (framing of) the problem you’re addressing, and mull over their ideas without too quickly trying to get to something actionable. Just try to better understand how they see the world, including the problems you identify but also their own, and appreciating what they feel they do well. I think it’s very reasonable to expect innovation to flow in large measure from such boundary-spanning ideas and conversations.

  5. Martin

    Great blog. Stealing good ideas from elsewhere is nothing to be ashamed of – it didn’t do Oasis any harm! Pilfering stuff is fine as long as you’re robbing from the best and to quote an old Morrissey lyric “talent borrows, genius steals”

    I suspect there’s probably two more challenges around innovation in any org. The first one is that innovation often gets confused with continuous improvement process. And secondly projects which have innovation as an end rather than a means (e.g. “let’s use a shiny new digital tool for campaign x”… even if it doesn’t fit the campaign/target/objective) feel more like ticking the innovation box rather than something deeper or richer.

    The ‘outside world’ idea is great and I think it can be linked to the ‘unusual suspects’ one.

    And this is a really interesting food-for-thought piece:

  6. Kathleen Christie

    There’s a lot to say on this Duncan, but I’ve decided to keep it to ca few specifics from the outside world…
    NGOs risk being left behind the curve on several fronts. Has anyone noticed that discussing failure is already fast becoming part of the norm? Witness the Guardian’s upcoming FailFest & the theme of this TedX Bristol 2013 event
    A shift in viewing input from ‘junior’ (bolder? action-orientated?) staff as ‘the awkwardness of dissent’ to the providers of fresh & nimble thinking would help – it’s already produced buzzy spin-offs like Campaign Bootcamp & Mobilisation Lab
    Finally getting out more is key. Rather than sit back & just absorb the collective anger about austerity, the TUC’s chief economist devised a dynamic debate series to envision society ‘after austerity’ Far from involving the usual suspects from the union sector, she looked outside & boldly invited Michael Heseltine (on his first ever Congress House visit), a series of private sector heavyweights, a smattering of academics & an ex US Labor Secretary. The latter produced a great clip on learning from the US economy which made decision makers here sit up

  7. Ben Niblett

    I like Liam Barrington-Bush’s book ‘More Like People’ about ways to make working together more fun and more human and less like a production line – to be more innovative and better in many other ways too.
    Tearfund’s reorienting our advocacy to be more like a movement and less like an organisation and it’s been a very interesting journey. I think we’ve learnt that listening to critiques from people from other sectors is a brilliant use of our time – we don’t always agree but we do learn. We’ve found it’s easier to see we need to rethink our strategy – if the things we normally do work ok but aren’t likely to add up to a just and sustainable world, then we need to do different things – than it is actually stopping doing things we’re used to and start doing new stuff. Stealing and customising things other people have done is a lot faster than inventing our own. And hierarchy in organisations doesn’t always come from the top.

  8. James Whitehead`

    The following link take you to Nesta’s publication which is called ‘The Open Book of Social Innovation’:
    It is divided into the process of social innovation; connecting people ideas and resources; and ways of supporting social innovation.

    Two quotes from it:
    Innovation isn’t just a matter of luck, eureka moments or alchemy. Nor is it exclusively the province of brilliant individuals. Innovation can be managed, supported and nurtured. And anyone, if they want, can become part of it.
    It involves alliances between the top and the bottom, or between
    what we call the ‘bees’ (the creative individuals with ideas and energy) and the ‘trees’ (the big institutions with the power and money to make things happen to scale).

  9. Frans Verhagen

    Lasting innovation is based on an idea that can stand the test of time.
    One such idea is the Tierra monetary system. It is taking the looming climate catastrophe as organizing principle or departing point for an international monetary system that is based on the carbon standard of a specific tonnage of CO2e per person. Pursuing a carbon-based international monetary system means that decarbonization becomes the basis of the strength of a society’s economy and its currency. The more a society pursues a renewable energy structure, the stronger its economy and its currency. The conceptual, institutional, ethical and strategic dimensions of such system are fully presented in the 2012 book entitled The Tierra Solution: Resolving the climate crisis through monetary transformation, published by Cosimo Books in New York City.
    The beauty of this bold Tierra system that is based upon the principle of climate justice is that it connects the individual in the global North or South via his/her country to the basic global monetary system where the country’s balance of payments keeps track of both financial and ecological(climate) credits and debits. That system, unrecognized by many, is the most important system because, as glue, the international monetary system binds together the monetary, financial, economic and commercial systems. So a transformational change in the international monetary system such as in this proposed carbon-based international monetary system means a transformational change in the other three global systems.
    Given that governments will be the last ones to adopt such transformed international monetary system civil society is the main advocate for such system and its vision for an alternative world order. Thus, Oxfam could setup a Tierra Fee Dividend (TFD) Working Group which would join other TFD Working Groups that are working with the International Institute for Monetary Transformation.
    The Tierra monetary system is also called the Tierra Fee and Dividend (TFD) system because its carbon reduction method is the Fee and Dividend system which is fundamentally different from the present cap and trade method. Major proponents of the FD system are James Hansen, Bill McKibben, various members of US Congress including democratic leader Chris Van Hollen.

  10. Karina Brisby

    We did have one at Oxfam, but unfortunately internal politics and confusion about the need for innovation got into the way and it was cancelled after 9 months of operation. Now I can speak from the other side of the fence and say that to do innovation it needs to truly supported by senior leadership who truly think there is value in innovation proccess, managers and staff know they won’t be judge working on projects that have high risk or not delivering and end result , but value the learnings and insights that come out of the project. Departmental defences and silos need to come down to see new ways of doing things as an organisational win rather than a threat to their sense of self and standing. Interestingly, I just gave a talk about this very subject a few hours ago at the SXSW Interactive Festival in the US, called Changing the Changemakers, with reprenstives from Greenpeace’s, Sierras Ckub and UNICEF Innovation program. You can follow the discussions we had and the audience reaction via the #hackchange hashing on Twitter.

    In the end, I think that many organisations like talking about “being more innovative” it’s the doing that clashes with leadership and organisation culture the most. Innovation cannot be an add on to an organisation, there must be a culture shift.

  11. Olivia

    Hi Duncan,
    Great post, I hope this is read widely, and beyond advocacy staff in NGOs!
    My addition to your list for long-term innovation in advocacy would be more consideration of funding models.

    For example, we know that crowd sourcing for advocacy works; in fact, many of the advocacy organisations you cite are doing well because people want to fund campaigns that speaks to, and on behalf of, their values. We also know that once people campaign and donate, they are more personally invested in, or take greater ownership of, the campaigns outcome.

    But to do this in a traditional NGO conflicts with fundraising goals, and might raise questions from supporters about why we’re spending money on advocacy not on service delivery… but we’re advocacy NGOs …
    Additionally, of course, other funding comes from the Governments whose policies we often would be campaigning against, if it weren’t that we needed their money to continue operating.

    Two, possible, but admittedly ill-thought-out ideas are 1) take a risk and test asking your supporters willingness to donate to a campaign or, to donate to support advocacy and campaign capacity-building in the countries where said NGO works or 2) Seek funding / grants specifically for advocacy, so that the campaign can take on a somewhat-separate life of its own, separate but in concert with the NGO.
    Either way, funds is certainly a hindrance to NGO innovation, and copycatting effectively.

    Would be interested in thoughts on this?

  12. Nicholas Colloff

    Great post! Especially my ideas, of course! One thing to add is to remember that innovation is the successful application of a good idea (rather than simply having more ideas), so developing ways of effectively testing ideas as ‘prototypes’ and aligning your innovation process with good project management are essential. In my experience, good advocacy people tend not to be good project managers, so there is a diversity to add to one’s team immediately!

  13. Jaime Faustino

    Hi Duncan,

    I got some simple advice years ago from Katya Anderson: “we have to do two things, always:

    1. Create a reason for action (not just offer information) that is personally more compelling to our audience than the rewards of sticking to the status quo.

    2. Make it easier to take action than to do nothing. People will do something if it looks easier than what they’re doing now.

    There is a nice video on this topic at

  14. Jenny Ross

    There are some really interesting ideas here – I think that organisations can often struggle to let go of control in advocacy which is needed if campaigning is going to relevant, engaging and have impact.

    About 8 or so years ago I attended a global workshop to discuss strengthening citizen voice and participants from all round the world were asked – Where were we most successful? What were the critical success factors? The top three answers were 1) We didn’t follow policies or procedures 2) We didn’t tell anyone what we were doing initially 3) When it was a success we allowed others to take credit!

    In the same workshop – someone from HQ highlighted one of the big issues with supporting campaigning in other countries – What do we do when we strengthen civil society voice but we don’t like what they are saying?! Maybe this anxiety is why innovation might be stifled?

    I think there is a lot to be said for ‘stealing’ but I see that actually what is needed is to recognise that at the global/HQ level people need to be comfortable with allowing campaigns to be based on a national understanding of what will work. It is great to share ideas but not impose blueprints (however innovative they may be!)

  15. Bonnie Koenig

    Great ideas and discussion. One of the things that the discussion underscores to me is that successful innovation isn’t just about a ‘new idea’ but looking at challenges in ‘new ways’ (which might be new perspectives on old ideas). We have a tendency to ignore past successes and failures and historical lessons (for a variety of different reasons including lack of time, motivation, etc…) when often a blend of the old and new (including older and younger generational perspectives) can lead to very effective innovation. And of course no matter how good the idea or innovation, so much comes down to the conditions around implementation. So changing the processes and structures to accommodate ‘new ideas’ going forward is critical to any type of innovative success.

  16. Kimberly

    My counter-intuitive contribution: enable innovation by becoming more methodical and systematic about the “standard practice” stuff.

    I’ve worked in or with advocates at development NGOs for 7 years now – in both a feisty little incubator-style org and big old Oxfam. I’ve been really, really surprised about organizations’ inability (unwillingness?) to actually document the basic and the standard models they use for advocacy and campaigning. I moved to the UK and became a campaigns MEL person to try and learn this stuff – it really should not be that hard!

    Example: ‘Policy model 1: To set or influence an agenda for a range of actors ahead of a key event, gather evidence from programme and use it to evidence policy recommendations in report. Launch the report and generate a pile of media and other coverage, to get people talking. Use social media and webinar-style events to reach influential bureaucrats and technical specialists.’

    This is basic stuff for the likes of advocacy teams – but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen common strategies like this written down to this level of detail.

    Nailing the basics down helps make tacit and hidden knowledge explicit – meaning people can learn more standard models faster, and THEN start to innovate from them. When we spend ages debating simple definitions, or “scale up” advocacy approaches in multiple countries without having properly, systematically laid out the basic model and core components, we undermine our ability to innovate. Everything is messy, so there is nothing firm and solid to build or depart from.

    So my vote goes to: spend time defining and testing the basics, and making them available in accessible formats that people can learn rapidly from. This is, I think, a precondition (‘necessary but not sufficient’) for enabling loads of people to deviate from those models – test and then integrate new learning across a big old org.

  17. Valeria Méndez de Vigo

    Go out from the office! Spend time with real people of all kinds. But particulary, listen to the poor and marginalised women and men as they are always a source of inspiration and can be a source of innovation!
    Touch on base and see what other organisations and movements do, in your own country and outside!

  18. Sarah Jackson

    Great post, Duncan. And lots of brilliant stuff in the comments! A couple of thoughts from me:

    1) While I agree it’s crucial to make space for creativity by clearing away restrictions, some great innovation can also come *from* restriction. Part of the reason smaller organisations have to come up with great ideas isn’t just because they’re agile but because without a mass supporter base, a big budget or celebrity supporters they have no other way to make their voice heard.

    2) There is a pretty big difference between Facebook buying a start up and an organisation stealing another’s organisations idea. The difference between buying and stealing, for one. I know we’re all on the same side, fighting the good fight etc but it can be very demoralising for staff to see a much bigger organisation take their idea. In many cases it does help to advance the change that they want to see, which is great. But it may also help to generate cash and build profile for a large organisation when the smaller organisation is struggling to survive.

    • Duncan Green

      Interesting – which is worse, Oxfam nicking your good idea, or not nicking it? And can you suggest a third option, given that large INGOs are unlikely to start buying up smaller ones…..

  19. Sarah Jackson

    Thanks for replying. Hmm… If it furthers the cause and raises awareness, it might well be a good thing, especially if influencing targets are hearing the same case – and the same policy recommendations – from lots of different organisations.

    But at the public campaigning end of things, if a larger organisation takes your campaign idea and drops something crucial from the message, or adapts it in a way which you disagree with, it could work against you. And as campaigning and marketing become increasingly intertwined, nicking ideas may have an impact on the bottom line for smaller NGOs who struggle to compete for profile and supporters.

    I’m afraid I don’t have a third option. It may be unlikely but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect large INGOs to exchange some of their resources for ideas and expertise. In a previous role I got a call from an agency who were developing a campaign with a very high profile and well-resourced NGO. The agency said that as we were clearly the leading experts in the sector on the issue they were hoping that we would share our expertise to help them shape the campaign. I said of course, we would be happy to, if they could send me some more details we could send them an estimate of our fees. Obviously we didn’t hear from them again, but that could have been a good arrangement for both of us.

    I know there’s no point crying about the injustice of it all, we are businesses as well as charities. And we will always find inspiration and ideas from each other, and sometimes there will be honest mistakes and coincidences. But organisations who talk about empowerment setting out to steal ideas from those with less power looks a lot like hypocrisy. We might not be able to stop it, but perhaps if influential figures in the sector didn’t actively encourage it that would help?

  20. Danboyi Nuhu

    I think i work with a DFID program in Nigeria presently that advocates innovatively.A Governance program,(M4D)Mobilizing For Development doing a lot of advocacy, meeting with and consulting, not only with the Policy makers and service providers but also with communities through the CBOs.
    The communicatin strategy in M4D is to improve the peoples out look on the entirety of development itself and particularly, to limit the lines or distance between the community and the local authority.
    I suggest that Charles Abani should be included in this discussion, for he believes in innovation particularly, such that can bring out the discussion on improved ways to get the people involved in the development process of their lives, their community and their people.

  21. Jim Shultz

    Thank you Oxfam for this post. The Democracy Center works globally with organizations ranging from UNICEF to local climate activists to help them become more strategic in their advocacy efforts, using a nine-step planning methodology. Those interested can find a library of advocacy support materials on our Web site here:

    Jim Shultz
    Executive Director
    The Democracy Center
    San Francisco/Cochabamba

  22. Besides traditional community outreach and social mobilization activities, what are other innovative advocacy strategies of engaging key stake holders, policy makers and building public awareness

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