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Three sub-types of charity innovation

28 March 2019

Innovation has lots of sub-types, and definitions differ. Here Christian Graham, innovation specialist and former digital transformation manager at Friends of the Earth, discusses the different types of innovation organisations can play with.

The three-horizon approach of Core, Adjacent and Transformational innovation:

Core innovationCore innovation: refers to optimisation of existing processes, products and services to reduce costs and/or increase revenue, profitability and other forms of engagement. Digital split testing of your website would fall into this category and might be a good place to start as the tools are already well developed. I’d regard this as the bare minimum for maintaining your place to avoid getting left behind.

Adjacent innovationAdjacent innovation: is about looking at existing products, services and approaches and innovating them to serve new audiences or new forms of distribution. For example, you might be taking existing paper resources or helpline services and looking to deliver them via a Facebook-based chatbot as we are currently experimenting with. In any case, you are taking existing insights and trying to grow your impact by applying them elsewhere.

Transformational innovationTransformational innovation: starts with your mission, your goals, and your supporters’ or service users’ needs and looks at how new approaches and technologies could enable you to deliver change in what might be radically different ways. According to Diamandis of X-Prize fame, technologies can be fantastic enablers of disruption:

  • Digitisation: What are you currently doing that requires a physical location, person or materials, but could be partly or purely digital?
  • Democratisation: How could you give service users more of a say? Or even ownership?
  • Demonetisation: How could you make a currently expensive service free?
  • Deceptive: What might technology that is in the early stages of the hype cycle do for your organisation’s impact if it doubled in capability and/or adoption in a few years?


Hype cycle – 

The hype cycle is a graphical representation of the life cycle stages a particular technology goes through from conception to maturity and widespread adoption.

If you are starting from scratch or in a risk averse culture, start with core (continuous) innovation. As Sir Dave Brailsford’s work with British Cycling showed, you can get quite far through the accumulation of small gains across a number of areas. That might help build the case for more resource going into other riskier areas of innovation.

Start by laying the ground for what disruptive innovation could look like at your organisation. This initial work should include getting buy-in for a new approach — including the use of case studies.

What are the criteria you’ll use to filter the ideas you work on and who’ll you work with? Some element of strategic alignment with your organisation’s goals should be part of this. Be aware that disruptive innovation can be a divisive term which is open to misunderstanding or even co-option.

You could then figure out if there are particular challenges you want to work on.

Then form your team, set yourself a deadline to report back and have a go at solving them! Global design company IDEO’s design thinking approach might be a good place to start in terms of a process to follow. You can download a guide from

NESTA also has a lot of tools on how to innovate:

This case study is part of CharityComms’ Innovation guide.

Photo: Hannes Egler on Unsplash

Christian Graham

innovation specialist and former digital transformation manager, Friends of the Earth