Innovation is a buzzword throughout development circles, from large institutional grant-making organizations to grassroots NGOs. Many donors ask about project innovation in the application because innovation forces NGOs into thinking differently and more creatively about how to utilize their resources and environment.
In its simplest term, innovation is using new or novel ideas and approaches to solve existing problems. Innovation also means being creative.
While an increasing number of donors want to know how innovative an organization or project is, it is often unclear what exactly donors regard as innovative projects. Many donors are very experienced and have worked in the development sector for decades, so innovation can be seen as something new and interesting. However, donors also tend to be very risk-adverse, and trying something new is inherently risky. So, the challenge here for applicants is two-fold: finding something new that is also proven to work. How is this seeming contradiction possible?
Notice that donors ask for innovation, not invention. An invention is something entirely new which has never been done or seen before. An innovation is a change or modification to improve something that already exists. For example, Thomas Edison is credited for the invention of the light bulb in 1879, however, generations of light bulb innovations have created the millions of different and improved light bulbs in use today. So, donors are not asking for something entirely new, but improvement or expansion of something that is already in use.
So how do NGOs work within this seemingly narrow gap to develop innovative solutions? By borrowing from the ideas of others. Good project managers are always on the look-out for new ideas. They might read about a similar project but in a different country, learn about a new local start-up with an interesting business model, or a new technology which can change the work of the NGO. Taking ideas from one place and re-purposing them for your own needs is the very beginning of building an innovative project.
No one idea will completely revolutionize a project. But a series of small adjustments to improve the project can add up to create major changes.
Examples of project innovation:
- Bringing mobile banking to a community which has never had access to traditional banking.
- Adapting successful agricultural techniques from one community to another.
- Partnering with government and businesses to improve efficiency in supplying basic necessities to rural and hard-to-reach communities.
- Using an app to increase literacy among young adults
Also Read: How can a Project be Innovative?
When writing innovation into a proposal, be careful to understand the donor’s preferences. Some donors are specifically looking to only fund innovative projects, while for others, innovation is of much less importance. Do your research. Keep these donor preferences in mind when determining how much emphasis to place on innovation in the proposal.