From good ideas to social good: How charities approach innovation processes


Research scope 

Research question

What motivates charities to innovate, how are innovation processes implemented, and how do they judge the success of innovation?


This exploratory case study uncovers how charities with a dedicated innovation function have implemented innovation processes in order to contribute to the body of knowledge about innovation in the charity sector.

Given the lack of research on how charities innovate, this study intends to contribute to practical insight of use to UK charities and raise the need for further and wider research into innovation in the charity sector.


The research objectives include:

  • Identify what motivations drive charities to innovate.
  • Identify how innovation processes have been implemented, including which phases of the process are used.
  • Identify how charities judge the success of innovation as a function and output.

Research design

The research aimed to build theory (Simons, 2009) by conducting a cross-case analysis of, and produce ethnographic knowledge about, the opinions and behaviours of some of those charity employees who have a dedicated role that focuses on innovation. 

The research required a qualitative method adopting a constructivist epistemology and idealist ontology where the social reality experienced is constructed by those involved in the experience, and an interpretivist theoretical perspective where the meaning of that which was experienced is understood as a point of view from a particular social actor. Abductive reasoning will be applied to reach the most likely inferences that can be made from the information provided by the research participants.

A constructivist epistemology positions the information provided by the participants as constructed through reasoning or intuition rather than from direct observation, and is appropriate for this study given the nature of the subject. The motivations for and implementations of innovation processes do not have directly observable phenomena but instead are a socially constructed understanding of the experience of innovation activities in a charity.

The idealist ontological stance regards the information provided as the unique, subjective opinion of the participants. It is their opinion based on their socially constructed reality of innovation processes within the charity they work for rather than any observation of a concrete, material reality that this research seeks to study. The idealist ontology directs the type of research to be conducted towards qualitative inquiry in order to capture the thoughts and opinions of the participants in subjective ways.

Qualitative research has many strengths, including dealing with ambiguous or complex situations and research topics and gaining insight into human behaviour and opinions. However, it also has weaknesses, such as lacking objectivity and analysis not fitting into neat categories, has difficulty drawing solid conclusions, and cannot usually be generalised to wider populations (Gray, 2018). As such, it is through abductive reasoning that inferences will be drawn about commonalities in the answers provided that do not seek to reach objective answers or generalise upon the findings.


Participants were identified from the top one hundred and twenty most popular charities in the UK as ranked by YouGov (2021) and selected for the study if their job title included the word ‘innovation’. Sixty individuals were contacted and four selected to participate in the study to ensure sufficient volume of data (Eisenhardt, 1989).

Of the charity organisations that participated in the study one was categorised as ‘Emergency and Relief’, one as ‘Hospitals and Rehabilitation’ and three as ‘Other Education’, according to the International Classification of Nonprofit Organisations (Salamon & Anheier, 1996).

Data collection 

Questionnaires were used to collect answers to ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about “contemporary events over which the researcher has no control over” (Gray, 2018). This approach allowed for unanticipated topics to emerge (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002).


Gray (2018) discusses the difficulties of ensuring rigor in qualitative research where it lacks reproducibility and suggests taking a stance towards generalisation. This study rejects the need for generalisation of the results outside of the target population and as such relies on alternative measures for ensuring validity and reliability in data collection.


To ensure the validity of this study the research design considers to what degree internal and external validity can be achieved and ensures that any conclusions drawn take account of confounding variables to prevent inaccurate or false conclusions. The questionnaire is structured so as to closely align with the research questions and thus assist validity (Gray, 2018).

Internal validity refers to how researchers can account for subjective interpretations upon the subjective data presented by the research participants. Multiple sources of data were used to address construct validity (Gray, 2018), and a self-reflective stance was adopted when conducting the analysis which involved repetitive checks as to interpretations that were made (Whittemore et al, 2001).

External validity is achieved by ensuring a sufficiently large sample group that is representative of the target population (Gray, 2018. p370). In the case of this study, the target population would only include those charities that meet the criteria for the research participants, i.e. is a UK registered charity and has a dedicated innovation function with members of staff with innovation in their job title. There is no intention to generalise to charities outside of the target population.


Reliability is of particular concern for this type of research as it depends on a single observer as the source of data analysis which lacks any guard against the impact of the observer’s subjectivity (Babbie, 2010, p.158). The stability of findings is improved through the use of standardised questions in the questionnaire (Gray, 2018).

Researcher bias

In conducting the research, bias was intentionally reduced and countered through the use of questionnaires as a data collection method that were completed without the presence of a researcher and thus reducing any potential influence (Gray, 2018).

Ethical considerations 

The data collection and analysis was conducted ethically by ensuring that informed consent was collected from all participants. The participants were informed that although they will not be anonymous when participating in answering the questions, they will not be identified within the study, that the information they provided is stored securely, that they should not reveal any commercially sensitive information, and that if a conflict of interests arose regarding the research being seen as criticism of the practices within their organisation they could decline to answer.

Data analysis 

The unit of analysis is the organisation. The questionnaire answers provided source material for a pattern matching analysis (Gray, 2018) to build up a picture of the innovation process used within a charity as represented by each research participant. Abductive reasoning was used to allow for the most likely themes to emerge and be compared across all charities with similarities and differences becoming clear.

Case study

The analysed research data will be presented in the form of a case study in order to explore subjects where “relationships may be ambiguous or uncertain” (Gray, 2018). The multiple -type (Stake, 2006) case study will consider commonalities and uniqueness across the charity sector to add to understanding about why charities are motivated to innovate, how charities implement innovation processes and how they judge the success of innovation.