What’s innovation anyway?

I’m not embarrassed to say that much of my twenties was spent jumping from high-horse to high-horse. I had views on everything and felt that it was incumbent on me to share those views with any poor soul who would listen.  More often than not, like many twenty-somethings, what I lacked in eloquent reasoning I made up for in passionate rhetoric. Unfortunately, as well meaning as I was (and am) I was occasionally guilty of sweeping statements, the kind of which I had no real right to make.  I recall one occasion being in conversation with the eminent historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey, where I suggested to him my belief that the world had never faced an issue as critical or important as climate change.  He warmly, and without the slightest hint of denigration, suggested there were very few things the world had not faced before. It wasn’t that he disagreed with my views on the importance of action on climate change (I can’t actually speak to what his views are on that), it was simply my use of sweeping sentiments that he wanted to highlight.

There are a few years between me and my twenties now and my passionate youthfulness battles daily with my maturing sense of cynicism at the world around me. I’m still prone to jockeying my way on to the occasional high-horse or two but I have mastered the art of picking my battles much more carefully. All the while the words of Professor Blainey have manifested themselves into my thinking about philanthropy and specifically into the philanthropic obsession in Australia with ‘innovation’. Could it be the sector suffers from the same passion filled rhetoric that afflicted me in my twenties?

I was recently speaking with Stacey Thomas, from Myer Family Philanthropic Services.  She runs a weekly philanthropy popquiz that poses some of the questions facing philanthropy in Australia (you can follow Stacey and the quiz on twitter @thomstac). Stacey and I were having a chat over the meaning of ‘innovation’ and what it looks like in program or project form when philanthropy is asked to fund it.  Stacey kindly agreed to make the idea of innovation the focus of her popquiz in the week just gone and she increased her altruistic credentials further by sharing the results with me.

As I was reading over the comments left by the 29 respondents to the quiz there was one statement that caught my attention, I am always reminded that the innovation of contemporary dance is firmly rooted in classical ballet. For me this statement sums up some of my concerns with the philanthropic approach of supporting ‘innovative’ programs only. What actually constitutes innovation?  Is it something entirely new that’s never been seen before (which, as Professor Blainey alerted me to, is very hard to find)?  Or do we accept that innovation is more regularly built on the back of the work of many others. Is innovation a successful program that has worked in Fitzroy, rolled out in Sunshine?  In other words, how much innovation is enough?

My view?  Well it’s my position that innovation shouldn’t simply = new. If philanthropy wants to support innovation, then it should be the NFP sector and broader community that is dictating what that looks like.  If a community genuinely identifies that a well established program is the answer to its needs, then perhaps that should be innovation enough?

While I do believe philanthropy should be a little more flexible with what it defines as ‘innovative’, there will always be that passionate part of me that holds out hope for that one ‘thing’ that solves some of our most pressing problems.  It is important that philanthropy helps to keep the fires of creativity burning among our the leaders, thinkers and doers of our community. Just because the task appears impossible does not mean that it is.

The Innovation point is the pivotal moment when talented and motivated people see the opportunity to act on their ideas and dreams

– W. Arthur Porter

Everything that can be invented, has been invented

– Charles H. Duell, Director of US Patent Office 1899

You can follow the musing of Caitriona Fay on Twitter @cat_fay and the blog @3eggphil

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