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How grant makers can stimulate innovation further

Sam HopleyCEO of Holy Cross Centre Trust

Sam Hopley, CEO of Holy Cross Centre Trust, attended SIE's Exploring Ecosystems for Social Innovation on 22-23 June and contributed this piece as part of our #SIEBerlin blog series. 

There are a few things grant makers could do to stimulate innovation further.

Initially I would encourage them to think about their slightly odd role as focal customer and how it might have the unintentional consequence of restricting rather than stimulating innovation. The best funders understand that the user or beneficiary of the innovation is the actual ‘customer’ and encourages those they fund, support, convene, marshal and measure to all line up and face them.

Too often our services and those that measure, analyse and write about them face upwards towards the source of cash rather than staying focused on the frontline where the impact and actual accountability should be. When we face upwards we translate, we lobby and campaign adjusting and compromising to closer fit an established message, wasting resource. Like divers coming up for air the ‘actors’ in our value chain surface for cash.

The worst funders encourage this process of diving for pearls, expending resource to reach the bottom, scrambling around grabbing for something then swimming back up with no real idea of whether we have treasure or tat. They pay for experts to study the process, extrapolate evidence to make parts of the dive easier and more cost effective in the hope of finding more valuable pearls while all the time elaborating and complicating. It skews the marketplace and breaks what could be a more beneficial value chain.

By creating preferential attachment to some ideas rather than others we end up paying for interpreters to translate what those ‘other’ people think and say. It isn’t intentional but it does have a significant impact on the traction, efficiency and cost effectiveness of the innovations and services we develop.

So how can a grant maker ensure that their resource is most efficiently utilised and break the cycle of wasteful dives? You don’t encourage the story tellers and interpreters to work separately from the innovators and doers, you don’t separate the evaluation and evidence from the ‘search’. Sure the whole effort needs evaluating but that can come later in a more cost effective and independent format. A grant maker needs to be more confident with not knowing when we are diving, how can they when we’re underwater?

An example of each player facing the real ‘customer’ is currently emerging from some of the work undertaken by the Behavioural Insights Team. The Back to Work pilot in Essex is showing interesting results, why? One reason is that they started from a different place than most innovators. Simplistically the DWP isn’t the focal ‘customer’. The solution to the problem is.  It has meant that they could readily look at how to improve the job seekers experience directly and bottom-up, develop hope and optimism from looking forward rather than backwards, outwards rather than inwards and arguably putting the job seekers  needs first. The outcome will then always follow.

It isn’t easy. 

By: Sam Hopley

CEO of Holy Cross Centre Trust