Three things you should know about Innovation for Social Impact

It seems you can’t pick up a development publication or read a funder newsletter these days without stumbling across the word ‘innovation’. Broadly defined as ‘novel solutions to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions’, social innovation has become the new fashionable catch-all term for out-of-the-box thinking and creative problem solving in the development sphere.

But as anyone who has worked in a community-based organisation with limited funding (or even for a larger NGO or foundation in a challenging socio-economic or political environment) will know, creative problem solving and out-of-the-box thinking are part of the everyday operational environment – flexibility and creative responsiveness are sometimes all that holds an operation or programme together in an extremely challenging environment. So the question is, how does social innovation apply to us, here in the developing world? Is it really all that academic, mysterious and elite? How do we institutionalise it here on the ground, and make it relevant to our daily work and our beneficiaries within our current resource and operational challenges? Here are three things you should keep in mind about social innovation, that may help you in implementing it in your own organization:


Yes, mobile applications can be great social innovations. Yes, online platforms are useful in context, and the Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to revolutionize the way you interact with your beneficiaries, and the way they organise their lives and their environments. But these solutions, as jaw dropping as they might be, might not make any sense for the problem you are trying to solve. Why would you design a mobile application to monitor climate conditions for local agricultural producers when those producers struggle to access a reliable mobile internet connection (I struggle to obtain a reliable internet connection in my Quezon City condo – this is, after all, the Philippines, where good internet access is as hard to find as a mall parking spot on a Sunday afternoon). Innovation is about doing things differently, not following the herd. Maybe the innovation you would want to implement is behavioural in scope (a practice called ‘nudging’), like a weekly social market where farmers meet to share peer learning, and also receive advice from experts in the fields of rural agriculture – translated into their own regional or indigenous vernacular language. An innovation is only as effective as the quality of human engagement it generates – don’t waste money on an expensive tech-based solution when low-tech is more appropriate, cost-effective, yields better results and/or requires less effort from you to launch, draw engagement to or maintain.


It is easy to be seduced into producing flashy innovation proposals for projects that you think fit your funder’s criteria for innovation – but don’t make the mistake of thinking that uniqueness is a key indicator for success. While risk is one of the key components of any truly innovative project (this is one of the things that makes innovation a sometimes particularly expensive exercise) remember that testing unorthodox methodologies requires intimate knowledge of your beneficiary group and the way they are likely to behave and react to the unfamiliar. If you cannot convince them to trust, adopt, or otherwise engage with the innovation you are introducing, it becomes a costly and futile exercise. Remember, the product is not the outcome – the IMPACT is. And there is no impact if there is no uptake. So this is why community consultation and involvement in the design process is key – the important takeaway phrase about designing for a community that is not your own is ‘Nothing about us without us’. Involve the community as much as possible in the early stages of the innovation, and you are much less likely to come up against resistance later on.


Don’t wait for your executive director to innovate. Don’t wait for your barangay captain, or the expensive academic consultants you’ve hired, or some well-financed entrepreneur to innovate. Source innovation from everyone around you. One super important aspect of innovation is that the idea needs to be based on real-world practical, implementable solutions – and we are all exposed to different real world contexts, and have different perspectives and interests that enrich our personal ability to innovate. The community you are trying to intervene in is just as capable of idea generation as a fancy consultant is – though the fancy consultant may have a great deal more technical know-how on implementation and the social capital to get the ball rolling (top tip: this is why it’s important to not let a consultant who is not from the context drive the innovation. They need your guidance. And your input. And your full technical and professional support). Draw colleagues from different departments, different levels of experience, different regions into your mapping. Have an office innovation party. Put a board up in your lobby where your staff and visitors can offer ideas on how to improve your services and products. Learn from these suggestions.

Above all – don’t be afraid to participate in the innovation process. It’s not rocket science. It’s human empathy, turned into a tangible solution for the benefit of all.

Jarryn Katia is a Civicus Fellow deployed in the Philippines for 2 years. Having a firm background in training, instructional design, media and innovation for social impact, he will work as Consultant of the Knowledge Development and Management Program (KDM) of CODE-NGO.