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Why Innovation Is About Ideas, Not Just Inventions


By Allison Gauss

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

Innovation is considered a key to success in the technology startup space. This association with tech companies, though, means that when we think of innovation, we often think of some new gadget or invention. This mindset makes creative breakthroughs seem predicated on having a top engineering team and a big research and development budget. Fortunately for nonprofits and social enterprises, this is not the case.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines innovation as “a new idea, device, or method.” While it can come in the form of a new machine or microchip, innovation can also be a new approach to a problem, a change in behavior, or a new way of using existing resources. Innovation can happen at any organization in any sector.

Some of the most successful and celebrated innovations of the past decade center primarily on a new approach or a new way of using resources. Organizations from the for-profit and nonprofit sector have used existing methods and technology differently in order to revolutionize their space. Use their breakthroughs to inspire your team to make game-changing creative leaps in your mission.

1. Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and ArtistShare

What It Changed: Investment and Financing

Existing Tools: Online Payment, Social Networks

Money is power. That has always been the status quo. Not only can the wealthy choose what products or services to purchase for their own enjoyment, backing from large investors often determines which products and projects become available to the wider public. While this system is still prevalent, the advent of crowdfunding has opened investing up to a much wider population.

In 2003, the platform ArtistShare was launched to help musicians fund projects with direct contributions by fans, rather than from record labels. Crowdfunding platforms for all kinds of campaigns, projects, and products quickly followed. Sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter have created a new avenue for entrepreneurs and inventors to gain funding. Much like a social media profile, users can create a page introducing their project and appeal to friends and family for support.

Crowdfunding allows regular people to contribute a small investment to films, clothing designers, food products, and more. Because the price of admission is so low, nearly anyone can become an investor, and the risk of funding a project is spread widely across its backers. By channeling existing payment and social networking systems, crowdfunding sites allow regular consumers to support projects in their infancy with minimal risk. The entrepreneurs can also tap into existing connections and social sharing to fund their ideas.

Crowdfunding has even spread to the nonprofit sector, where organizations use these platforms and others to fundraise for projects.

2. APOPO Hero Rats

What It Changed: Landmine Detection and Neutralization

Existing Tools: African Giant Pouched Rat, Animal Training and Conditioning Techniques

Landmines are the weapons that keep on taking. Because they are designed to be difficult to detect, they continue to kill and maim civilians years after a war. What’s worse, landmines are often placed in developing countries with few resources to find and neutralize them.

While new technology often seems at the center of solving problems, APOPO took advantage of an indigenous creature and standard animal training techniques to mitigate the danger. African Giant Pouched Rats are incredibly smart animals with a superior sense of smell. APOPO conditioned them to identify landmines. By training the animals to use their powerful sense of smell to detect the deadly weapons, APOPO has disabled over 68,000 landmines in Tanzania, Mozambique, Cambodia, and other countries.

APOPO didn’t invent animal training and they didn’t genetically engineer a new rat. They took advantage of existing resources and techniques and used them to create a new solution to a longstanding problem.

3. Arab Spring Uprisings

What It Changed: Social Activism, Political Demonstrations, and Media Coverage

Existing Tools: Social Media Platforms, Smartphones

Twitter and Facebook may be best known for allowing us to share the minute details of our lives on the Internet, but social organizers have unlocked its power as a tool for mobilizing people and spreading information.

Beginning in December 2010, a wave of political protests and demonstrations known as the Arab Spring spread through the Middle East and North Africa. “People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom,” said Philip Howard, who led a study of how social media shaped the movement’s activity.

While these political actors weren’t the first to spread content and news of demonstrations on Twitter and other platforms, the Arab Spring represents a change in how people viewed and used social platforms. This shift in the approach to organizing people has rippled to causes all over the world, including #BlackLivesMatter and #YesAllWomen. Of course, a tweet won’t solve a social issue by itself. But smart use of social platforms can help a movement reach a wider audience and compel traditional media outlets to investigate and publicize the problem.

4. Lyft and Uber

What it Changed: Transportation and Car Culture

Existing Tools: Car Owners, Smartphones, Online Payment

While ridesharing platforms like Lyft and Uber seem like a high-tech solution to transportation problems, their power lies more in their social model than their apps. Ridesharing took existing GPS technology, online payment processing, and survey systems to change the way people use cars.

As Lyft CMO Kira Scherer Wampler explains, 87 percent of commuter trips are people traveling alone. This means more cars on the road and more traffic. This issue, along with unreliable taxis and poor public transportation, made commuting an expensive, frustrating problem. Lyft and Uber took the technology people were already using every day to create a new solution.

By synthesizing mapping data with driver profiles, ridesharing makes the process of getting from point A to point B faster, cheaper, and more fun. “Our vision is to fundamentally change car culture,” says Wampler. To do this, ridesharing companies aren’t designing new vehicles or even building new devices. They are mobilizing people to use the tools they have more efficiently.

5. Keep-A-Breast

What It Changed: Youth Outreach and Awareness of Breast Cancer

Existing Tools: Music Festivals, Volunteers

Even with the success that many breast cancer organizations had in spreading awareness, the disease was still being seen as a problem only for older people. This meant that a huge part of the population wasn’t being exposed to the detection methods and preventive lifestyle changes that can save lives.

Keep-A-Breast, whose mission is “to empower young people around the world with breast health education and support,” has begun to bridge the gap by reaching young people in a whole new way. Teens are now learning about breast cancer risk factors at one of their favorite summer events.

The Vans Warped Tour is a music festival that has traveled all over the United States each summer for the past 21 years. Over half a million kids attend, spending the day watching performances and visiting booths. For 15 years, one of the attractions has been Keep-A-Breast’s Traveling Education Booth, where volunteers speak to youth and give information about breast cancer and preventive tips. KAB says, “The Traveling Education Booth brings breast cancer education to young people on their own turf.” By changing how they reach people, Keep-A-Breast has brought life-saving information to a population that was being left out of the conversation.

Innovation Everywhere

As we work to solve the world’s most pressing social problems, it’s important to realize that innovation is not limited to tech startups and wealthy corporations. What all of these organizations have in common is a new idea, a new way of doing things. They looked at the circumstances and resources they had and asked, “How can we do more?”

For older nonprofits, it can be especially tempting to stick with the well-trodden path, but a fresh approach can lead to huge progress. You don’t have to build a new road in order to “take the road less traveled.” You just have to notice the path and pursue it.

Every day, social impact organizations are creating and scaling new solutions to the world’s toughest challenges. We hope you’ll join us at the Collaborative in Boston next year to showcase and share innovations like these. In the meantime, learn how to raise money for the causes you love with the guide below.

How to Raise Money for the Causes You Love

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