Supporting Innovation in the Social Sector


Sylvia Hines, CEO of Media for Development, talks about the launch of  ‘Lean Social‘ (a project to support innovation in the social sector) and the need for the voluntary sector to kill its sacred cows.


Lean Social: Supporting Innovation in the Social Sector.

In Cuba recently I was told a story about a traveler given sustenance by a poor farmer who lives on the milk of a single cow.

The traveler shows his gratitude for the farmer’s help by killing the cow.  A year and a day later he goes back to see how the farmer is doing and is welcomed with a table piled high with food.   “It forced him to put his pastures to new uses,” said Enrique, my storyteller.  ‘In Cuba, we need to kill our cows.’

I suspect it would read rather differently if told from the farmer’s perspective.  What did he eat while his new crops – or whatever new business he embarked on – were maturing?  Exactly how did he hit upon his recipe for success?

Here in the UK many of our metaphorical cows are being killed at the moment through cuts or reorganised commissioning processes.    The difficulty, particularly for small organisations with limited resources, is twofold: how much to invest in necessary innovation where the outcomes are uncertain, and how to organise the innovation process to have the best chance of success.

It’s a challenge similar to that faced by startups.  A typical startup is driven by a small team of people with an idea they think is great, a lot of enthusiasm and not much money.  And the problem is that that ‘not much money’ can disappear extremely quickly.

“Here in the UK many of our metaphorical cows are being killed at the moment through cuts or reorganised commissioning processes.”

Innovation is at the heart of Media For Development’s approach to solving social challenges and we’ve made mistakes in the past about how we’ve gone about it.  A project dear to our heart, for example, was the Freeasabird website, a peer support website for and by women leaving prison.  It was a great idea and we spent a year training a team of women and creating content for the site.  When it didn’t take off in the way we’d hoped, our funding had gone and there was little we could do to resurrect it.

In learning from this, we’ve been inspired by the ‘Lean startup’ method which has gained particular currency in the digital world.  ‘Lean’ is a systematised way of developing a service or a product in small incremental stages with constant testing and feedback.  This means that business assumptions can be tested and validated at every stage and financial investment protected as far as possible.

Our belief is that this approach could offer real value across the voluntary sector and facilitate a new and more cost-effective way of developing innovative services.   We’re really excited to have been given a one year grant by Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust to try out this approach on some of the ideas we’re wanting to develop and to share both the principles and our learnings across the voluntary sector.

We’ll be starting the process with these blogs and would love to hear from people who have experience of working in similar ways.

Sylvia Hines, CEO


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