Recently, Seth Godin wrote a short little blog post about non-profits and innovation. He argues that due to the fact the organisations are not profit driven, in order to please shareholders they have a higher responsibility to be relentless in their focus on delivering the best possible service for their clients. This is in essence why they exist and therefore they should be innovating continually to drive the best possible impact. I couldn’t agree more Seth. Thank you for saying it.

Too often non-profits hide their fear and apathy behind their wanting the money to keep coming in. Unfortunately many donors wish charities would take more risks in trying to find better solutions for the people they are trying to help.  The humanitarian aid world is no different.  An ALNAP study found aid agencies are risk averse, which is a complete shame. Yet, in so many conversations I have with aid workers, almost 100% of them are crying out for innovation, change, and improved impact.

There are many different small improvements needed, but how about we also begin to challenge the business model of aid agencies? Almost all agencies operate the same model – give us money and we’ll implement projects; some vary this slightly by implementing through partners but they still tend to control how the money is spent. Tinkering has been done with new technologies, but the model remains the same.

Recently, a number of smaller new agencies are coming on the scene applying crowd funding to projects – for example, Humanity Direct and New Incentives, but also some are beginning to look at cash transfers direct from the donors to the recipient – Give Directly.

I think this is where things are beginning to get interesting. What happens when we figure out how to scale person-to-person giving? What happens when we allow people impacted by disaster to choose how they use the cash given to them? What happens when we allow donors to choose the person they give to? Perhaps then we will begin to focus on how to help local businesses scale up, hire more employees, etc. Perhaps then aid agencies will focus not on feeding people, but on training community health workers, training teachers, and building schools and clinics while households begin their jobs again, begin fishing or farming again.

There is no magic bullet, but we desperately need to challenge the norm, create new models, and diversify more. People affected by disasters are not helpless persons in need of saving. They need a hand to stand up again and allowing them greater choice throughout the process can help them regain their dignity rather than squash it.

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