Skip to main content

How Nonprofits Can Encourage Digital Innovation

As the number of digital activism successes (and failures) increases, nonprofits are getting more serious about being digitally innovative. Some, like Oxfam, which has funded shiftLabs and Greenpeace, which now has a Digital Mobilisation Lab, are creating internal projects dedicated to increasing digital innovation.

But what are the broader lessons for nonprofits and activists without the budget for an in-house innovation team?  What kind of environment engenders effective digital innovation? Reflecting on the hundreds of digital activism cases I have studied over the years, I came up with a model I call ARC: Awareness, Relationships, Crisis.


A lack of digital skills is often seen as a stumbling block to innovation.  How can staff innovate digitally if they don’t know how to edit video, use HTLM code, or use a Twitter hashtag? Organizations like Tactical Technology Collective have addressed this problem by teaching human rights campaigners how to use a range of software tools that are useful to activists.

But lack of individual skill need not be a stumbling block. Individuals need an awareness of what is possible digitally, and relationships with people with the technical skills to polish and implement those ideas. For example, Ory Okolloh, the Kenyan blogger who initially had the idea for the crisis-mapping application Ushahidi did not have the skills to code a piece of software that would allow SMS messages to be posted to a public digital map, but she knew that this kind of software was possible.  Then she contacted her developer friend David Kobia, who built the first version.

How can nonprofits increase this awareness? The Greenpeace MobLab held a six-day digital mobilization skill share in the Netherlands in late February. It brought together 100 international activists from Greenpeace and its partners to share tools and tactics.  One of the methods used to quickly expose activists to a range of tactical possibilities was “speed geeking,” an activity like speed dating, where participants circulate around a room.  At each station they are given a short demo of a tool or tactic.  At the end of the demo they are not users - speed geeking is not a form of training - but it does create awareness.

For organizations without the financial resources to host a weeklong camp, examples of digital innovations can be shared in whatever format participants prefer: a list of links in a monthly email to the staff listserv, a monthly video hosted by a staff member tasked with increasing innovation awareness, slide presentations at staff meetings, video conferences where an innovative team shares the story of their success with staff working on other campaigns.  The goal with these interventions is not to train staff to be able to implement these strategies, only to generate excitement and interest in new possibilities.


The more we understand about innovation, the more we understand that it is a social process.  Even lone geniuses build upon the work of others, and it’s no coincidence that technically innovative companies are started by groups of entrepreneurs: Jobs and Wokniak, Gates and Allen, Zuckerberg, Saverin, Muskovitz, and Hughes.  In the business world as in the nonprofit world, these relationships provide two values: skills and support.

The skills side is perhaps the most obvious.  Programmer Bill Gates needed Paul Allen’s business savvy to cement Microsoft’s first intellectual property deals.  Visionary Steve Jobs needed the technical skills of computer engineer and programmer Steve Wozniak to build the first Apple computers.  In a nonprofit, campaign managers rely on video editors, web administrators, and graphic designers to implement the vision of a digital campaign.

The fact that relationships are needed for emotional support and encouragement, as well as hard skills, may be seen as touchy-feely, but it is tremendously important.  When Jobs and Wozniak were building the Apple I computer in the early 1970’s, they were building it within a supportive community of computer hobbyists, known as the Homebrew Computer Club, that encouraged amateurs to build their own computers and software.

On the activism side, Ory Okolloh was also part of closely-knit and politically engaged community of African bloggers, like Erik Hersman and Juliana Rotich, who helped build Ushahidi from a piece of software into an organization. At the skill share, Greenpeace activists did not only learn skills from one another, they also built a global community around digital innovation for environment causes. This support is crucial in encouraging innovative individuals and small groups to follow through on new ideas.

Just as a community can provide support to innovators, it can also provide innovation-killing discouragement. Large organizations can be unintentionally conservative and bureaucratic. Staff can be made to feel that their job is not to achieve a goal but to perform a task. Organizations that see risk more as a possibility for failure than an opportunity for success will discourage staff from trying new things. This is particularly true of organizations that have thrived using older campaigning methods, leading to an “if it’s not broke don’t fix it” mentality.

One way to get around risk-averse tendencies in a large nonprofit is to allow a semi-independent project like shiftLabs to “hothouse” riskier projects. This means that shiftLabs implements the project and is its public face, such that a success furthers Oxfam’s goals, but a failure would not hurt its brand.

Organizations without a project like shiftLabs can begin by encouraging an environment where the voicing of innovative ideas is encouraged, even if these ideas are not always implemented. This “free speech” model of encouraging innovation pushes staff to think more creatively, while allowing the organization as a whole to implement only when it is ready. Small nonprofits and individual activists should seek to actively build supportive communities around their cause.


It is very difficult to innovate in a vacuum. Without constraints, all options are possible, efforts become diffuse and, if a solution is created, it applies somewhat to many situations and perfectly to none. Crisis (or at least a context of constraint) provides a firm reality check to any effort at innovation. There is a timeframe, a clear goal, specific users, and defined resources. In addition, crisis can encourage a conservative organization to get behind an innovation, since crisis creates a greater demand for results, even if it means breaking the rules.

Ushahidi was created during the post-election crisis in Kenya in late 2007 and early 2008. At the time, the local media refused to report on acts of violence. Ory Okolloh was using her blog as a de facto news aggregator, but the task was too great and she also feared for her safety. She needed a platform that would allow Kenyans to publicly self-report instances of violence as they witnessed them around the country. The context of a nationwide crisis in a country with low Internet penetration but higher mobile penetration led to the creation of an application that linked SMS messages to a digital map.

This does not mean that nonprofits need to wait for violent street riots to attempt innovation. Every campaign is a reaction to a social, political, or environmental crisis.  By linking innovation efforts to the concrete goals of specific campaigns, nonprofits are likely to get more practical and reality-driven results. By checking if staff members have the awareness and relationships needed to innovate digitally, organizations can begin to achieve greater digital success.

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world

By entering your email address and clicking “Submit,” you agree to receive updates from the Open Society Foundations about our work. To learn more about how we use and protect your personal data, please view our privacy policy.