The Nature of Innovation: Cultivating Collaboration in Nonprofits Through Natural Wisdom


Published by on April 16, 2024

Nature often teaches us the biggest lessons. 

In the vast tapestry of nature, every thread intertwines with intricate precision, nothing exists alone. Our little insect friends teach us lessons in collaboration, resilience, and innovation that we’d be wise to take heed of.

Bees, for example, are the all-stars of collaboration. They’ve got this incredible system where every bee has a role that benefits the whole hive. They communicate through dances (yes, dances!) to share where the best flowers are. Their job of pollinating plants is crucial for our food supply and keeping all the ecosystems thriving. Their world is a masterclass in working together for the greater good.

Nature’s brilliance isn’t just for inspiration; it’s a call to action. The non-profit sector must intertwine our efforts as effortlessly as the ecosystems that inspire us.

Innovation in the Face of Nonprofit Challenges

Facing the modern Goliaths of environmental, social, and health challenges, nonprofit professionals often resemble isolated ants, each scurrying with our load, believing we’re making a difference. We are out there, creating thoughtful marketing plans, taking donor calls, implementing life-changing programming, and more. Yet, despite our best efforts, the battles loom larger, demanding not just the strength of many but the united force of an entire community. Our fragmented approaches, much like scattered ants, lack the impact of a united front.

Hello, I’m Rob and I’m a nonprofit nerd and compulsive connector. I’ve had the privilege to work on some of the sector’s biggest problems in the health space, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Cancer. I’ve been at inspiring organisations stacked full of amazing and passionate people doing amazing things. But, the uncomfortable truth is it’s not enough. 

The Funding Paradox in Modern Giving

In the latest report by AWW Partnership they state that between 2015/16 and 2022/23 that giving to the top 100 UK charities has shrunk. In real terms, it’s increased by 19% (from £2.56bn to £3bn) but during the same period, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has increased by 30%. In the latest UK Giving report by CAF it was reported that although more on average is being given, LESS people are giving to charity. Less! 

Fewer people are regularly donating to charity compared to before the pandemic, according to the UK Giving Report. Nearly six in ten (58%) donated or sponsored in the past 12 months, compared to 65% in 2019 and 69% in 2016.”

But we shouldn’t be blaming the supporters, that’s on us. 

A Call for a Shift in Nonprofit Strategy

I don’t think it’s that less people want to give. There are countless successful examples of big brands getting on the bandwagon and using “purpose” to present their brand identity. Like Dove’s self-esteem project or Patagonia and its anti-consumerism stance.

So why aren’t Charities tapping into this demand? 

Here’s my 2 cents. Currently we are too focused on competition, always trying to one-up each other, and it’s dragging us all down and becoming a race to the bottom. Homo sapiens didn’t rise to the top of the food chain by being the strongest or the fastest. Nope. We did it because we were great at working together. 

I studied economics, so I understand how capitalism, market forces, and competition can be good. It keeps things moving. But it can also lead to inefficiencies and inequities. We have created a charity-oligopoly where the top 20 charities are getting the majority of the donations, and those donations are not increasing! That’s our cue to maybe think differently, and mix in a bit more collaboration with the competition. There’s room for both!

Learning from Ants, Bees, and Caterpillars: Simple Lessons in Nonprofit Innovation

So what inspiration can we draw from nature? Look at how fire ants, when faced with floodwaters, don’t just survive; they come together to form living rafts that float to safety.

Learning from Ants, Bees, and Caterpillars: Simple Lessons in Nonprofit Innovation

Or caterpillars collaborating to build communal silk tents that offer protection from predators and the elements. This boundless wisdom from nature provides a profound source of inspiration and innovation, reminding us that the keys to overcoming the most daunting challenges in our sector might just be found in the simplicity and efficiency of nature’s designs. Unwavering collaboration, teamwork, and shared objectives.

Collaboration Before Competition: Insights from Medical Research

Ok i’ll stop talking about bugs. Other industries have managed to fuse this blend of collaboration and competition. In the world of medical research they have something called a “precompetitive state” when companies or researchers decide to share information and work together on the early stages of their projects. They do this before they get to the point where they’re competing to be the first to market with a new drug or medical breakthrough. It’s all about pooling resources, knowledge, and effort to tackle big challenges that no one could solve alone, making the initial steps of innovation a team effort rather than a solo race.working together has led to some amazing discoveries. Here’s the lowdown on three big team efforts:

  1. The Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) is like a worldwide club where scientists from universities, companies, and charities share their findings openly to speed up understanding diseases and finding new medicines. It’s all about sharing knowledge quickly so everyone can make progress faster.
  2. The Human Genome Project was a huge effort where scientists from all over the globe worked together to map out all the genes in the human body. It was a bit like putting together the most complicated puzzle ever, and it has helped doctors understand and treat diseases in new ways.
  3. The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) is a partnership where the European Union and the pharma industry share the costs and the work of developing new medicines. It’s about sharing the risks and rewards of trying out new ideas to get new treatments to patients faster.

Revolutionizing Nonprofit Strategies: A Model for Sustainable Collaboration

Taking a leaf out of nature’s book, imagine a non-profit ecosystem with systematic collaboration over competition, where the success of one is the success of all. We could redefine our sector’s narrative, inspired by the smallest among us who tackle the greatest challenges through unity. It’s time to channel our inner ant and build our raft before the floodwaters rise, ensuring that when they do, we’re ready to float, not flounder.

And the good news, there is already some great collaboration happening. Take the Dementia Revolution which was a joint Marathon bid between to of the biggest Alzheimer’s Disease charities. They won the 2019 Charity of the Year for the London Marathon. Or the Good Lab by Good Innovation that brought together a number of the top UK charities and created some ground breaking solutions.

Three Essential Elements for Effective Nonprofit Collaboration

In non-profit collaboration, success hinges on three key principles:

  1. Open Communication: Essential for sharing knowledge and fostering innovation, open communication creates a culture of transparency and trust, much like bees sharing information within their hive. It’s vital for generating new ideas and strengthening partnerships towards common goals.
  1. Shared Vision and Values: Collaborative efforts must be rooted in a shared mission that excites all parties, even if their methods differ. This alignment ensures that, despite varied approaches, everyone is striving towards a unified goal, guiding them through challenges.
  1. Flexibility and Adaptability: Like nature’s constant evolution, successful partnerships must be flexible and ready to adapt to changing circumstances. This flexibility allows collaborations to overcome obstacles and explore new possibilities, fostering an environment of innovation and growth.
The Nature of Innovation: Cultivating Collaboration in Nonprofits Through Natural Wisdom

Taking Action: Steps Towards Innovative Collaboration in Nonprofits

The Nonprofit Hive stands as a testament to this vision, offering a platform where like-minded organizations can connect, share knowledge and ideas, and embark on collaborative ventures, much like bees working together to nurture their hive.

Embrace the Ethos of Collaboration: Joining The Nonprofit Hive is the first step toward breaking down barriers and fostering a spirit of cooperation. By signing up, you engage with a network of peers dedicated to transforming the nonprofit landscape through shared innovation.

Harness Collective Wisdom: As we face increasing challenges, drawing from the diverse experiences and ideas within our community can lead to breakthrough solutions. The Nonprofit Hive facilitates this exchange, turning individual insights into collective wisdom.

Build Our Future Together: The urgency to act is now. We must not wait to be overwhelmed by the challenges ahead. By building our ‘raft’ of collaboration today, we can navigate the future more effectively, ensuring that when challenges arise, we are ready not just to survive, but to thrive.

Let’s not wait for the flood; let’s build our raft now, together. 

Embrace innovation, embrace collaboration—embrace the future of nonprofit success.

Have you joined the Nonprofit Hive? If not, you are missing out! Join today 🐝


Rob Green

Robert Green is a nonprofit strategist and digital pioneer with over twenty years of expertise in harnessing technology for social impact. Leading initiatives at major health nonprofits. With a background in fundraising, Rob excels at blending strategic insight with compassionate innovation, advocating for a nonprofit sector driven by unified efforts and shared success. Rob recently joined the team at ESCo UK and is also the co-founder of Charity.Bi, a new tool to unify your supporter data to raise more and improve retention.

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