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I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up to attend the RSA’s Innovating for Culture and Communities event: “How do we innovate for purpose on the south coast?” Only recently have I become a Fellow of the RSA, and having spent the past 20+ years working in private sector innovation, non-profit innovation was new to me.

Photo credit: Irene Campbell (@ireneukey)
Photo credit: Irene Campbell (@ireneukey)


To set the scene, we were approximately 25 people gathered to hear 5 speakers talk about their projects, why they got involved, and how they’re creatively addressing challenges. Projects included ‘hiSbe’ the new socially conscious supermarket in Brighton, the Brighton Science Festival, Hastings Pier, the Beacon Hub Project, and the Saltdean Lido project. No PowerPoint slides – this was an open and honest conversation, fuelled by each speaker’s passion for their projects.

Here are some of my insights from the event:

What I find unique about non-profit innovation is that the projects can create a long-lasting, memorable impact in their communities. Take for example the Brighton Science Festival and the 1000s of people it inspires every year, or the Saltdean Lido which is poised to become a great place for families and friends to meet and socialise, while invoking a sense of pride in their local area.

At the heart of each of the 5 projects is a person, or small group of individuals, who took a stand for the project, even though the ‘how to do it’ was unclear at the time. It struck me that social innovators step up to the plate and take responsibility. They are both courageous and visionary. They innovate for a purpose, a purpose that has a strong emotional dimension and compelling vision, that gradually draws others in, building momentum as the community of supporters expands. In my view, this is an area where private sector innovators could learn a thing or two from non-profit innovators.

Perhaps my biggest learning of all is that successful non-profit innovation has the capacity to change our communities and the world around us.

- Gerard Harkin is the Director of 3inno, a UK based revenue growth innovation consultancy. He has authored many innovation articles and blogs. Since 2008 he has been a Visiting Lecturer on Innovation Management for the University of Brighton's MBA programme.

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