Environmental, social, governance (ESG) Leadership and career development

“Who moved the cheese?” The case for innovation in the UK charity sector

by Naziar Hashemi Partner, National Head of Non Profits, Crowe Clark Whitehill LLP

A few years ago a friend told me about a book that talks about how to deal with change. It is a little book called “Who moved my cheese?” by Dr Spencer Johnson. There are four characters in the book, two mice: “Sniff” and “Scurry” and two Littlepeople: “Hem” and “Haw”. In summary, the characters run through a maze looking for cheese. Through their individual ways they all discover cheese at Cheese station C. After a while a routine is established and Hem and Haw take to being a little complacent because they know that the Cheese will always be at Cheese Station C, whereas Sniff and Scurry would continue to wake early, explore the maze before arriving at Cheese Station C, taking off their running shoes, tying them together and hanging them around their necks so that they can easily retrieve them should they need to seek out new areas for cheese.

One day when all four characters arrive at Cheese Station C, they find there is no Cheese! Sniff and Scurry put on their running shoes and go exploring the maze for new cheese. Hem and Haw sit and wait and wait growing weaker by the day but in the full expectation that cheese will eventually arrive. Finally, Haw decides that no new cheese is coming and tries to convince Hem that they also should leave and look for new cheese. He is unsuccessful in convincing Hem so sets out on his own and eventually finds new cheese. This time though, having learnt his lesson, he takes off his shoes, ties them together and keeps them close by in case he has to go looking for new cheese. No one knows what becomes of Hem!

I was re-reading this book recently and it occurred to me that our sector is facing a multitude of challenges which means that we need to focus even more on the need to adapt, innovate, look further into the maze and look for new cheese. 

There is increased and increasing regulation, a change in public attitudes, a change in the way the media is engaging with the sector, a reduction in funding and all at a time when the demand for what the third sector provides is at its highest.

You could say that it is time for the sector to focus even more on innovation and find new ways of both raising funds but also delivering its services. In the charitable context, innovation is about creating better and different ways to achieve the charity’s strategic mission and delivering impact. Often innovation is considered as the “big bang” things like the invention of the iPhone or on line shopping. But in most cases innovation is about a series of incremental changes. So it doesn’t have to be shiny /sparkly/ massively revolutionary, it can be as simple as looking at what others are doing and copying or doing it better. In the last couple of years we have seen charities becoming more innovative and considering how they do existing things better, seizing opportunities, better leveraging their expert knowledge in the areas that they work or investigating newer ways of working. 

One aspect of innovation has been charities re-considering how they use technology. To date a lot of investment has been put into buying hardware or software. The CAF/ACEVO 2017 Social Landscapes report noted that most charities are looking to the future with recent or upcoming plans to boost their charity's social media presence, invest in new IT technology and online solutions and introduce new methods of giving. Most charities now engage with their supporters through twitter and their websites. There has been some investment in on-line giving and some charities have started to explore and implement some technological solutions to delivery and also income generation. The Charity Digital Skills Report 2018 has found there has been some progress in some charities’ digital skills, but that 45% of charities still don’t have a digital strategy and a growing expectation that charity leaders must understand trends and how they affect their charities.

With funding from governments being under pressure as well as the recent changes in fundraising legislation it is perhaps time to explore more new forms of fundraising. In the past decades the sector has been innovative in finding new ways to raise its income and some of these have seen unprecedented growth such as charity shops, charity events or challenge events or face to face fundraising. It could be said that these forms of income generation are mature or some would say saturated and so it is time to explore and be innovative.

Charities are now exploring mobile giving, social media and crowdfunding, giving by text and also viral campaigns such as the MNDA’s ice bucket challenge. There is more use of social impact bonds, as well as microloan initiatives and some enterprise investments. A number of charities are exploring how they can make giving more easy and make on-line donations as simple as possible.

There has also been a rise in charities innovating in their operating model with a focus on service delivery and using big data to enable them to better deliver impact.

Brexit and tightening of funding is also leading to more charities seeking not just mergers but also strategic alliances and collaborations with both other charities and non profits but also with corporates. The 2017 Social Landscapes report noted that one in ten charities has plans to merge with another organisation over the next 12 months with more than three-quarters saying they have or will be partnering with another not-for-profit while almost half saying they have or will be collaborating with a private sector organisation. 

As part of the Innovation in Giving Fund, NESTA, worked with ten large charities to test out their ideas for new ways of increasing giving of time and money. Details of their findings can be found at:

Our one day conference in partnership with CFG, entitled Innovating for Success, covers the importance of innovation for charities and then picks up some of the strands discussed above.

  • Kate Sutton, Inclusive Economy Lead, Nesta explores why charities need to innovate.
  • Lisa Quinlan-Rahman, Executive Director of Customer Strategy and Experience, Scope explores new ways of delivering front-line services.
  • Prun Birjal, Medical Director, Change Grow Live, Kris Gibbon-Walsh, Head of Network Partnerships, FareShare & Chris White, Head of Social Purpose, Yoti will share how they are using digital technology in exciting ways, showing the ways that innovation can be harnessed to improve outcomes and deliver charitable purpose.
  • Paul Jackson-Clark, Director of Fundraising, Parkinson's UK will discuss new ways of generating income, and using new funding models to increase fundraising capabilities.
  • The day will conclude with embedding innovation in organisational culture presented by Jean-Francois Bessiron, Director Europe, Business, Industrial and Scientific, Amazon. 

For further details and to register visit:

This post was last reviewed on 31 May 2018 at 10:36
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