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Innovation is about more than just new technology. Andrew Sadauskas examines how two Aussie nonprofits have designed changes with life-changing impacts.

Innovation – listening for opportunity

First published 31 Aug, 2020

We live in an age of rapid and often unprecedented change. In the world of fundraising, adapting often means making dramatic changes – and at short notice.

When people hear the word ‘innovation’, often the first thing that comes to mind is implementing a new piece of technology. However, true innovation is about far more than just installing a cloud-based AI platform or upgrading your CRM system. It is about making changes that make an impact or add value to your organisation. 

For Cancer Council Victoria, innovation meant adopting design thinking and a ‘test and learn’ methodology as a new way of planning its campaigns and events. This is adding value by making the organisation more responsive to the needs of its donors.

Meanwhile, thanks to the support of a generous major donor, The Shepherd Centre is implementing a new online platform called HearHub that will allow it to assist hearing impaired children located around the world. 

Beyond the technology itself, this initiative is unlocking new opportunities for The Shepherd Centre to secure philanthropic grants, partnerships and major gifts. Over the longer term, the organisation aims to turn the platform into a self-funding social enterprise.

Let’s take a closer look at how these two nonprofits have embraced true innovation.

Cancer Council Victoria puts donor needs to the test

Like many not-for-profit organisations, Cancer Council Victoria used to take a traditional ‘waterfall’ approach to planning its fundraising campaigns. New campaigns and products were brainstormed internally, with minimal
external input from the donors themselves. Then there were a series of lengthy processes that were required prior to launch. These included developing a business case and seeking board approval.

This lengthy, linear approach to projects made it easy to fall into the trap of delivering the same campaigns the same way every year, even when some aspects of them weren’t working. Worst of all, the needs and desires of supporters were often an afterthought. 

Designing better outcomes

The situation began to change after Marlene Cirillo, Head of Innovation and Business Improvement at Cancer Council Victoria, began introducing design thinking to the organisation.

“A new idea is put into the market in the leanest way possible. The idea comes from meeting the needs of supporters, rather than coming from a random blue sky brainstorming session in the office. It’s directly linked to an insight you might have about your supporters or a current barrier or issue that your supporters have,” Cirillo says. 

“It’s about being responsive to your supporters. It means that whatever you create is going to be more relevant. Hopefully, you’ll have better results than you normally would if you created something in a bubble without consulting.”

Don’t go chasing waterfalls

The old waterfall method meant putting campaigns into the market in a linear way and not making any changes along the way. In contrast, design thinking means iterating based on supporter feedback.

“Let’s say you’re building a new campaign. You keep coming back to the questions: What does the supporter need? What is the supporter trying to solve by interacting with your cause? That’s your starting point,” Cirillo says.

“You keep coming back to the question of what does the supporter need? What is the supporter trying to solve by interacting with your cause? That’s your starting point.”

“It’s really important to have one-on-one conversations. One-on-one conversations counter the groupthink that happens in a focus group setting, where the loudest voice in the room can dominate the entire conversation.

“You put it out on your digital platform and see what supporters do. Are they registering? What areas of your website are they clicking to? Then you just keep iterating on that and building more of what they want, while removing parts that they don’t need for their fundraising journey.”

The key to successfully implementing this design thinking approach is building a test and learn culture internally.

“People feel empowered to put forward ideas and ask for them to be tested or build their own tests within their work, and are not afraid to fail those tests. With a test and learn culture, people are more empowered to try new things. Staff are more critical of their own work, and they’re really thinking hard about what can stay the same with the campaign and what needs to change.”

Reading the tea leaves on donor needs

The design thinking methodology has helped the Cancer Council revitalise long-running events, including Daffodil Day, Relay for Life and Walking Stars (as Cirillo recently detailed at the EventRaise conference). More recently, it has been used to help guide the rollout of the Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea campaign through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The whole premise of that campaign is to gather together in a real-life setting, have a morning tea and make a donation. It was a big problem to then have everyone locked down and not be able to do the core activity that we are asking supporters to do,” Cirillo says.

“We spoke to our hosts and to people who had already registered. We explored with them how they felt about the campaign. Did they want to try a virtual version of Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea? What were their thoughts? 

“Internally, staff assumed the answer would be: ‘Well, let’s just turn it into a virtual campaign.’ What surprised us was that a lot of supporters didn’t want to cancel their events. They wanted to run their morning tea as they always had. And a lot of them were talking about it being something that they could then celebrate when they were all back together again.”

From there much work went into postponement communications, rather than having a virtual morning tea, although they did build a virtual morning tea offering for people who wanted it.

Let’s get it started

Cirillo’s advice for other fundraisers looking to embrace design thinking is to just start. “Work within your sphere of influence and start testing, straightaway, with whatever you have control over within your fundraising portfolio. 

“Try and get the support of management to allow testing to happen wherever you can. Then talk to your supporters. Listen to what they’re telling you, even if it’s not what you want to hear. Try and really understand the need behind what they’re telling you, even if it sounds like a complaint.”

The Shepherd Centre’s innovation is loud and clear

The Shepherd Centre provides life-changing clinical support to children with hearing loss. The organisation currently supports over 700 children throughout New South Wales, the ACT and Tasmania, helping them to develop listening, spoken language, literacy and social skills. Over 95% of the centre’s graduates end up in mainstream schools.

However, despite its groundbreaking work, many children still miss out on vital early intervention. Worldwide, there are more than 34 million children with a disabling hearing loss. Even in Australia, half of all hearing impaired children don’t receive the specialist therapies they need.  

According to Angela Moffatt, Senior Key Relationships Manager at The Shepherd Centre, the solution has been to develop a pioneering online platform called HearHub. 

“HearHub is the first platform of its kind in the world. It hosts The Shepherd Centre’s groundbreaking clinical tools and educational programs, so that clinicians and families caring for deaf children throughout Australia and the world can access and use them,” Moffatt says.

“It will provide equity of access to support, regardless of anyone’s geographical location. Our projections show that it has the potential to reach over 17,000 clinicians and help over 340,000 children within five years.

“We have evidence-based programs that really support and develop children’s listening, spoken language and social skills. HearHub will give clinicians access to the programs we have at The Shepherd Centre. It will allow them to support a family or a child in the same way, wherever they are.”

A generous major donor is listening

The new initiative was the brainchild of the organisation’s General Manager of Clinical Programs, Alicia Davis, who inspired a major gift from a generous anonymous donor. 

“HearHub was brought to life from a conversation Davis had with a donor of ours, who was also a past parent. She was telling him about this idea she had. He, thankfully, saw the opportunity to develop a new, innovative platform that would change the lives of children across the globe,” Moffatt says.

“After that conversation [in early 2019], he and his wife made a significant major gift. That was the catalyst for this new, exciting chapter of innovation at The Shepherd Centre, and really brought everything to life. The donors who made that transformational gift are also very much a part of and involved in the project itself. Their insights and expertise have really helped the development of the platform. 

“We successfully finalised the development of minimal viable product earlier this year, and that includes four clinical tools, which are now being piloted across four continents.”

Sounding out new philanthropic opportunities 

From a fundraising standpoint, Moffatt says the rollout of the new clinical platform is now creating some really exciting opportunities both at home and overseas.

“The potential for us to partner with trusts, foundations and philanthropists who we haven’t worked with before, especially those who have a focus on investing in new and innovative projects, is huge,” she says.

“Since the initial gift, we’ve gone on to secure another $500,000 from a foundation this year. This will allow us to further develop the platform, which is really exciting. We are looking to expand and hopefully work with other partners in philanthropy in other parts of the world because of the global nature of the project.

“I’m happy to say that we’ve raised over a million dollars so far towards the project. Philanthropic support is obviously necessary for the development and rollout of the program. Over the long term, it will operate sustainably on a social enterprise model.”

Listen to your clinical staff

Moffatt’s advice to other nonprofits is to not be afraid to think big. “Before, we were focusing on capital campaigns and growing our income to support more families and children. Then this dream project changed everything. We’re now focusing on a much bigger picture. My other piece of advice is to work very closely and collaboratively with the program delivery staff. They are dedicated, passionate and experts in the field.” 

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