NGOs might be well-served to solicit ideas as broadly and persistently as they do funds.
I have no survey or study to support this, but I do have a strong sense that many people would welcome the opportunity to contribute something other than their money or time to a cause; namely their ideas. An invitation to use their expertise in the form of suggestions to help solve specific problems could be quite appealing.
Some organizations have issued such challenges from time to time, but never with the same intensity that they do fund-raising. “Idea-raising” could be energizing for your organization and potentially extremely helpful to your mission. Just one break-through idea might more than offset the cost of a campaign to solicit those ideas.
Global Grand Challenges (Grand Challenges of Canada, USAID, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) is the most prominent activity of this kind, and the fact that they issue grants to develop promising ideas gives weight and momentum to the practice. That said, even without offering funding or monetary awards, individual organizations might be more aggressive in promoting their own challenges. Here are a few suggestions that might help in doing so:
1. Explain Challenges in Multiple Ways
Phrase your challenges from different viewpoints. Don’t just describe the challenges as you understand them, using terms-of-art specific to your own discipline, but also put them in more general terms. For instance, certainly ask for
a more efficient and cost-effective cold chain [for vaccines],
but because not everyone will know what a ‘cold chain’ is, also say you’re looking in a more generalized way for
long-lasting, low-level, endothermic reactions
or even, if you know, some specific technologies that might be helpful, like
non-electric heat sinks, employing thermally conductive tapes and epoxies
persistent quantum-effect cold spots using graphene or similar materials.
2. Promote, don’t just Announce
Because break-through ideas may come from outside your community of supporters, it’s important to reach out deliberately and persistently to other disciplines and people with other interests. Posting the challenges on your website and on blogs related to what you do is too narrow an approach. Once you’ve abstracted your needs to more general terms, take them to chemists, physicists, operations managers, etc. through their professional societies and the media they use. This will require a real campaign, just like you would do for fund-raising.
3. Think ‘Laterally’
For instance, many organizations face supply chain challenges. But here in the US there are defense contractors who deliberately create highly complex supply chains, looking to source parts or components from as many different Congressional districts across the country as possible. These companies must surely have sophisticated supply chain expertise, some of which could be invaluable to you. But would you have ever guessed that the manufacturers of fighter aircraft would be the ones you could turn to in order to learn how better to coordinate delivery of aid?
4. Report Progress
If you regularly and prominently report progress (number of ideas received, number adopted, etc.) you’ll create an environment that will encourage more of these idea contributions. When people understand that many others have taken your challenges seriously and believe that your organization is worthy of their support, they will be all the more likely to contribute their own ideas.
5. Make it Easy
This seems obvious, but if you truly want new ideas, cast your net widely and make sure that it’s easy for those ideas to reach you. One highly prominent health NGO, for example, issued a six-page challenge description without a single email address, phone number, postal address, or challenge-specific URL.
6. Name a Coordinator
Naming a challenge coordinator –a real person– rather than just specifying an anonymous drop-box, will demonstrate both to your own organization and to the public that this is something you take seriously, that it’s not just a one-time PR gambit.
The odds are that someone, somewhere has an answer to a problem you face or a challenge you need to overcome. All you need to do is find them and invite them to contribute their ideas.