Case study: What other charities can learn from the BHF's digital innovation

Innovation in the charity sector is a frequently discussed topic. It’s incredibly important to us as The British Heart Foundation (BHF) that we are innovative in the way we generate income so we can fund our life saving research into heart and circulatory diseases and their risk factors.

We are now 18 months into our fundraising innovation journey, however, our innovation pursuits started long before the formation of a team. Put in its simplest sense, innovation is developing a creative solution to a problem, something our cardiovascular researchers have been doing for over 40 years.

Innovation is incredibly important to the BHF, but that doesn’t mean it always comes naturally. Risk appetite, regulation, resource and capacity are often pitted as enemies of the innovation. But that’s simply not true; often the solution lies in the problem.

Back in 2018, our fundraising innovation team was set the task of identifying new ways of generating significant income by developing transformational audience-led products. The first thing we learnt on our innovation journey is that for any new idea to work, you need buy-in and cross organisational support. You need the entire organisation to back your new ideas and to demonstrate real commitment to making them succeed. Joint workshops, kick off sessions and lunch and learn meetings were invaluable to getting crucial support so early into innovation projects.

We learnt that we needed to de-mystify the concept of innovation and make it accessible to everyone so they would not only support, but also champion the process. We worked with lots of teams across the fundraising directorate, like digital and finance, to get them to input directly into the creation of new ideas – not only were the ideas brilliant but we instantly had innovation champions in different teams.

For all the books on innovation, there is clearly one common theme: listen to your audience. Use your supporters to help develop new ideas, test your ideas with your audience and use their feedback to make them even better. Plus, you don’t need a massive budget to do this – testing of new ideas can be done really simply, quickly and efficiently.

For example, paper prototyping (recommended by Amazon and Tesco) encourages you to get creative with pen and paper, sketch out your ideas with your supporters and get direct feedback. When we were looking at developing new ideas with our supporters, we invited them into our offices to play around with the ideas we had put together on paper. It was a great experience and our supporters really enjoyed finding our more about the work we do.

With innovation projects like the BHF Alexa skill, we started really small. We worked very closely with the Amazon Alexa team to build the simplest “skill” we could so we could test it with our supporters and see how they would interact with it before adding new features – a MVP (minimal viable product). We also tested and created ideas with the Alexa users we have at the BHF.

Whilst we have a dedicated innovation team, the true innovation comes from cross-organisational working; getting groups of people who don’t often work together in the same room to solve the big organisational problems. Mashing together different skill-sets can product amazing results!

Lastly, determine your right to play as a charity and embrace it, use the people around you, start small, test with your supporters and listen to your audience.

Krystyna Grant is head of innovation at the British Heart Foundation

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