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



The purpose of this research was to develop an understanding of what motivates charities to innovate, how innovation processes are implemented, and how charities judge the success of innovation. Innovation is a new and undeveloped discipline in UK charities and as such the body of research is small, making case studies and theory building an appropriate approach to adding to this area of research.

Literature review

A keyword analysis of nonprofit journal articles demonstrated that innovation in charities does not receive academic attention to the same degree as fundraising and volunteering. The conclusion reached from the literature is that innovation in the charity sector attempts to meet dual purposes of achieving social impact and commercial benefit, and that this an important consideration in how to develop an understanding of innovation in charities.

Starting with an analysis of innovation process to reach the definition of a ‘visually represented, sequentially structured stages or phases, with connections and relationship between the stages, in order to be used as a guide or map for innovation and new product development activities’, the review then compared six innovation processes that have been designed to take an idea to launch. The activities described in each phase of each innovation process revealed how some processes lack certain aspects that others consider essential to the success of innovation. The comparison also showed how the innovation processes most likely to be used by charities lack a phase for achieving a full-scale roll-out.

The third and final part of the literature review brought together the first and second parts to consider how and why innovation processes are implemented in charities. Considering the motivations as resulting from a desire to tackle society’s most challenging problems, whilst also facing challenges of their own due to the COVID-19 pandemic, decreased funding and an increased demand for services, charities have good reason to implement innovation processes.


The research developed case studies from surveying innovation teams within charities to understand what motivates the charity to innovate, how they implement innovation processes and how they judge innovation to be successful, and in doing so answer the research questions to resolve some of the issues revealed in the literature review. The charities in the study were generally motivated to innovate in order to improve current organisational processes and products such as fundraising, implemented commercially-orientated innovation processes that follow the general phases of an innovation process but often lacked a full scale launch, and judged success by internal metrics rather than social impact.

A cross-case analysis was then performed in order to understand commonalities across the research participants and to develop a hypothesis. The insights from this analysis revealed that the higher income charities applied innovation more widely across the organisation whilst innovation teams in lower income charities were more focused on income generation activities. All of the charities shared similar motivations in innovating to improve existing functions and activities in their organisation. Also, all charities had implemented an innovation process that met the earlier definition, using it as a map to guide how innovations are taken from idea to launch. They utilised commercially-orientated innovation techniques as part of the process. Success of innovations was judged in three ways, by organisational change, learning, and commercially-oriented key performance indicators. None of the charities judge the success of innovations by the impact they had on the social issue that the charity tackles.

These insights allowed for building theory around identifying whether charities innovate in incremental or radical and strategic or social ways. The result of this theory building, the charity innovation model, allows charities with a dedicated innovation function to be compared in order to understand where their innovation efforts are focused. The charities that took part in this research all described innovation motivations, processes and judgements of success that place them in the incremental/strategic quadrant of the model, indicating how they focus their innovation efforts at smaller improvements within existing organisational processes and products/services. The charity innovation model also provides some insight into how charities might reposition innovation teams to produce radical innovations that tackle social issues in new ways.

The research and resulting model demonstrate that charities do not use their innovation teams to develop radical new solutions to tackle social issues which contributes to answering the question raised earlier in the paper, ‘if charities are innovating, why are there still so many social issues?’.

Contribution to knowledge

This research builds upon the considerable body of knowledge for innovation processes, including incremental and radical innovation, and contributes to the body of research concerning innovation in the charity sector, highlighting the need for greater consideration of how charities can apply innovation processes to achieving radical social goals. Given how little research has been conducted into the new field of innovation in charities, it is hoped that this study will in some small way move forward this research agenda. Innovation in charities has the potential to tackle some of our most challenging and difficult social and environmental issues in new and different ways, but only if it is given sufficient scope to develop appropriate models.

Limitations of the research

The number of charities participating in the research represents a small percentage of the UK charities with dedicated innovation functions and an even smaller percentage of the charities that may be innovating in how they deliver services. As such, the results of the research are not generalisable outside this group of charities.

This research focused mostly on the core processes of innovation and did not consider the conditions necessary for innovation in charities, which are likely to have an effect on aspects of the core process.

All of the charities in this research plotted onto the charity innovation model in the same lower left quadrant with no markedly different charities to serve as a comparison and therefore further validate the model.

Innovation teams and practices within charities are very new, with two of the research participants having had innovation teams for a year or less. The maturity of innovation teams is likely to affect the motivations, implementation and ways of judging success and so should be considered a factor in any future theory testing research.

Areas of further research

Whilst answering some questions about innovation in charities, this study has raised many opportunities for further research.

Longitudinal research could offer insight into how the motivations, implementation and measure of success of innovation change as a charity’s innovation function matures.

Theory testing research with a wider pool of charities would further validate the appropriateness of the conceptual approach of considering charity innovation along incremental/radical and strategic/social lines.

More in-depth research into the motivations and ways charities judge the success of innovations is likely to offer insight into the connection between the two and the influence they have on how innovation processes are implemented.