Quercus Group > Evaluation > Lessons Learned on Innovation Activities of 15 Danish CSOs
Lessons Learned on Innovation Activities of 15 Danish CSOs by Quercus Group

Lessons Learned on Innovation Activities of 15 Danish CSOs

15 Danish civic society organizations explored and experimented with different approaches to humanitarian innovation. We facilitate a learning process to gather lessons learned and shared them between the organizations as well as the funder.

The question is less about why, but how to do humanitarian innovation

Civic society organizations work at the forefront of global challenges – climate change, food insecurity, coercion, oppression, violence, education, etc. – and are challenged by them at the same time. Their space to operate is also increasingly under pressure. Financial support decreases, conditions for funding more often limit activities, or more agile social enterprises contest the space.

The sector is in need to go different and often novel ways and so many NGOs and CSOs launched innovation projects. The question is not anymore about why to innovate, but how to innovate. Navigating strategies and approaches for innovation is a difficult task because the deeply internalized practices of “how it is done” often conflict with the culture and mindset associated with innovation.

Case details

Client name:
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark
May 2019
Sep 2019

Donors and funders find themselves equally challenged. They recognize the need for more innovative approaches. However, uncertainty over outcomes or changes to methods often runs against the common practice of risk management or measures for accountability and return on investments. So, funders ask how to support innovation activities as well as how they can re-invent their own ways.

Lessons Learned - How did 15 Danish CSOs approach innovation?

As part of a Strategic Partnership Agreement (the SPA) between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark (MFA) and sixteen Danish civil society organizations (CSOs), the Ministry has offered the possibility for the CSOs to set aside up to 10 percent of their grant on innovation (2018-2021). The organizations were encouraged to experiment and work with different approaches in an attempt to strengthen innovative, adaptive and courageous solutions geared to respond to current and future global challenges.

Halfway through the funding cycle, we made an inception review aiming to

  • To provide an overview and assessment of current innovation activities within sixteen Danish civil society organizations.
  • To assess the solidity and the trajectory of the innovation work carried out so far and provide the MFA and its sixteen strategic partners recommendations, to guide the future work of humanitarian and civil society innovation.
  • To foster and promote shared learning and knowledge-sharing across organizations.

The inception review focused on learning

The inception review emphasized aspects of learning and opportunities for improvement more than making conclusive decisions or measurements over successes or merit. The funding was after all designed to be open for varying approaches and outcomes.

We aimed to support learning through

  • three consecutive workshops with the program lead, often the innovation managers, of the Danish CSOs. Together, we explored approaches taken, experienced barriers and how to overcome them, and stories of success.
  • the collection of case studies highlighting the experiences of selected organizations’ innovation journey,
  • individual feedback for each of the 15 Danish civic society organizations taking ideas, theory and frameworks of social innovation, commercial innovation and emerging humanitarian innovation into account.

The inception review also employed numerous interviews, a survey targeting different levels and units of each organization and extensive desktop research.

We summarized the results in a report highlighting lessons on core aspects of innovation such as

  • Culture and mindset,
  • Process and tools,
  • Strategy and governance,
  • Partnering, collaboration and ecosystem.

Defining innovation, funding it, measuring it and the use of technology

Four themes re-appeared throughout the review process. The themes were discussed in the workshops and reflected in the report.

How to define innovation in the humanitarian context.

The MFA as funder deliberately left the definition of innovation broad allowing the CSOs to choose their own starting point and focus. The absence of a clear definition caused friction and confusion because the usually present boundaries of what is funded and expected became blurry. This prompts a conversation on the relationship between the funder and the CSOs and their roles in doing innovative work. Our impression was that both parties might benefit from “demystifying” innovation and develop a more suited shared language beyond adapting the language derived from the commercial space.

Funding innovation activities.

The funding earmarked for innovation activities was perceived as an enabler that created the opportunity and playground for experiments that would have otherwise not occurred in other programs. However, it was not unclear whether this type of funding will continue beyond the initial funding cycle. The lack of long-term funding commitments has been perceived as barrier to the innovation process. At the same time, it spurred a conversation about partnering with non-traditional partners, e.g. the private sector or other financial institutions, and how to engage meaningfully with them.

How do measure innovation activities?

Innovation activities evade classic linear monitoring and evaluation approaches because they differ fundamentally from ‘standard’ programming. This causes friction between funder and CSO as common practice traditionally includes clearly defined and rigid accountability mechanisms. However, it appeared to us that there is a need to advance the conversation towards how traditional accountability mechanisms can be supplemented or adapted to account more for learning and continuous updates of the program.

The role and use of technology in humanitarian innovation.

The perception towards technology has been ambivalent. Emerging technologies are recognized as opportunities and means to address difficult challenges more effectively or differently. Yet, technology often remains a black box as mostly external partners supply the technical expertise or solution. Building more internal capacities for emerging technologies can be a pathway. Perhaps becoming even better at assessing and predicting potential impact, risks and social implications of technologies by proactively engaging with them can be a meaningful strategy, too.

About the Inception Review – Innovation activities led by sixteen civil society organizations in Denmark

During the years 2018 and 2019, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had committed to allocate 89 M DKK on innovation. A hearing between the MFA in collaboration Globalt Fokus (Danish CSOs for Development) in May 2018 by the MFA concluded to seek external input to a review with a focus on facilitating a learning process among the participating 16 CSOs.

Quercus Group, Dare Disrupt and Quercus Group associated partner Michael Thyge Poulsen were selected in a public bid to perform the inception review. The review was carried out 1 – 1,5 years after the initiation of the CSOs innovation activities.

15 Danish civic society organizations participated during the review process: PlanBørnefondenCare DenmarkCaritasDanmissionDanish Refugee CouncilDanish Red CrossDanChurchAidInternational Media SupportMission EastMS ActionAid, Oxfam IbisRed BarnetDanish Family Planning AssociationWWF and consortium between 3FDansk Industri and DTDA.