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Innovation should be no stranger to NGOs

In today’s business world, Innovation has become the new ‘it’ word. In the US, innovation has been dubbed as the “key ingredient that will keep it ahead of its overseas competition”.

Organisations that use innovation as a driving force are now leading others in the quest for funding as well as other resources. Interestingly, the ‘innovation fever’ is catching on and spreading to the non-profit sector worldwide.

For example, the Ford Foundation, founded in 1936, defines itself today as “a resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide”. Similarly, The United Way has set out to “find innovative solutions to transportation needs through partnerships with businesses, non-profits and public agencies”. Innovation has become a core strategy for the growth of such non-profit organisations.

In the case of non-profits, innovation can mean a number of things. To some, it can be a new way of designing, implementing and evaluating a programme, while to others it can simply mean taking a few pages from the for-profit sector and applying them to the non-profit sector in innovative ways. Ultimately, anything that successfully shifts the paradigm is innovative.

How can we foster innovation and encourage novelty in the non-profit sector in the UAE?

1. Regular organisational evaluation

Cyclical, in-depth evaluation of where the organisation stands is a good starting point. In the non-profit sector, particularly within aid organisations in the developing world, commitment to accountability and business-class best practices is unfortunately rare.

This is a sector that has historically lacked focus and discipline in practices such as performance management and the tracking of ‘Key Performance Indicators’. While the scarcity of resources in the non-profit organisations is blamed for taking the “business as usual” approach, what these organisations fail to see is that philanthropic and corporate donors have grown savvier and more aware over the years.

More than that, they are becoming uneasy with the lack of professional processes and safeguards that are common and expected in the corporate world.

Investing in self-evaluation every now and then will:

• Better utilise existing human and financial resources;

• Ensure projects are managed effectively against the organisation’s established set of standards, laws and regulations;

• Identify what problems need to be seen through a new lens and tackled differently; and

• Diversify their funding channels.

In short, regular organisation-wide assessments will yield cost-effective, impactful and innovative projects, and will enable the organisation to better serve its cause. Without regular assessment of organisational activities, organisations will engage in the same mode and process of work and continue making the same mistakes.

2. Investing in human resources

In the for-profit world, organisations have replaced use of the word ‘training costs’ with ‘human resource investment’, emphasising that human resource development is a strategic long-term organisational asset, and that investing in employees’ learning and upgrading their skills will increase the organization’s potential to efficiently achieve its objectives.

Non-profit organisations must invest in existing human resources through relevant training programmes and capacity building activities. More investments in upgrading the knowledge and skill set of employees in the non-profit sector will improve the process of work and the delivery of more impactful programmes.

Furthermore, it will attract talent to a sector that desperately needs “new blood” and more out-of-the-box thinking to solve persistent global issues. In the UAE, the majority of mon-governmental organisations (NGO) would be right to be more selective and to raise the bar when it comes to the required competency level and qualifications of potential employees. The non-profit sector should not be the last resort for the otherwise unemployable, especially in NGOs that carry the heavy burden of working to better communities and addressing the tough issues the world faces today.

As we approach 2015, it is important to note which of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) we must strive to achieve well beyond they expire. Of the eight goals, the one that cultivates innovation the most is the goal to develop global partnerships for development.

Cross-sectoral partnerships allow NGOs and non-profits to benefit from the exchange of learning and builds on experiences. It is because of, and through, such partnerships between governments, civil society and other partners around the world that mobilised action has obtained significant results. In the UAE, the formation of the Ministry International Co-operation and Development under the leadership of Shaikha Lubna Al Qasimi marked a vital and timely step towards structuring this sector and forming lasting and beneficial partnerships among key players in the country.

4. Mergers and acquisitions

In the non-profit world, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are usually ways to improve finances, attract funds or to address a succession vacuum. However, they can also be a way to strengthen effectiveness, to foster talent and innovation, spread best practices and leverage existing resources. M&A should not, by any means, be limited to struggling NGOs. Leaders of healthy organisations need to recognise the potential M&As have to create value in the non-profit sector.

In this highly fragmented sector, the strongest, most effective organisations ought to use M&A as a strategic tool to deepen their impact and widen their reach, as well as locate, adopt and foster talent and innovation in smaller NGOs with more limited means.

The discussion about the lessons non-profit organisations can, and should, learn from the corporate sector is not new. Past decades have witnessed a change in the way many international NGOs operate, particularly with the increased awareness of today’s donors and donor organisations.

Similarly, UAE-based NGOs must strive to benefit from the lessons learned from the for-profit game and replicate their principles of internal audit functions, transparency, diligence in self-evaluation and performance monitoring, and solid management systems. However, they must do so with the intention of instilling such practices with the ultimate aim of creating environments that encourage finding new and innovative solutions to age-old problems.

After all, non-profit professionals with their scarce resources will benefit far more from innovative approaches than for-profit professionals will.

— The writer is a development specialist.