Defining innovation: reflections on my first few months as VONNE's Deputy Chief Executive

Lisa Goodwin, Deputy Chief Executive of VONNE reflects here on her role promoting innovation within the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in the North East.


Last night, while I was attempting (unsuccessfully) to fit a drawer back on to its runners for the tenth time, a quotation which was used in our recent Introduction to Innovation workshop came back to me:

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".

Who knows if Albert Einstein really said this – but it’s a quote which resonated with me as I kept pushing the drawer back in at the same angle and expecting it to magically click into place. When I heard the quote at the workshop it suddenly struck me that - after weeks of trying to define innovation, and persuade VCSE organisations that it would be worth attending an event on it -  I realised that innovation can be as simple as trying to do something you’re already doing in a different way.

Innovation isn’t new to the VCSE sector.

Adapting what we’re doing to meet the needs of our users is what our sector is good at. We’ve always done it. Groups and organisations are set up in response to an identified need within our communities, and over time those needs change and so do the solutions.

Innovation is often conflated with digital innovation – and most of the high profile examples of innovation in our sector are those where organisations have used technology. But that isn’t always the case. In our Introduction to Innovation workshops, innovation expert Michael Coates gives some brilliant examples of how charities have used very simple techniques to change people’s perceptions or raise funds.

For example the RNLI appealed to people’s sense of nostalgia by getting them to save 5ps in glass jars and returning them when full, raising many thousands in the process.

But 5ps in jars are not going to address the huge issues our sector currently faces in terms of higher numbers of beneficiaries, reducing resources, ageing committees, and lack of engagement with younger people. We do need to think seriously about digital technology, not just in terms of our own systems, but in terms of what our beneficiaries want.

We arranged a Design Hop for VCSE organisations a few weeks ago in partnership with CAST, and some of the reading materials which they shared with us to get us thinking before the event made me re-evaluate VONNE’s role in helping the sector to embrace digital in all its forms. They shared a very thought provoking blog by Janet Hughes on what a digital organisation looks like. This statement stood out:

It is somehow still socially acceptable for leaders to say they don’t understand the changes that are being brought into our lives by digital technology, as though it’s some kind of niche topic that only specialists need bother themselves with. Digital technology isn’t niche — it affects most aspects of our lives, and most aspects of the strategy and operations of most organisations.

Engaging with younger people

Something that had preoccupied me in my previous role at VODA was how to bridge the widening gulf between younger and older people, which is reflected in how these two groups can think about and use technology. A huge motivation for me in the innovation support part of my role at VONNE is to engage younger people in the sector.

We know that the average age of a trustee is nearly 60, and we also know that there is a huge drive amongst young people to do social good – and quickly.  Without taking the time to learn about technology, and to think about how we might drive innovation, we will find that much of the good will of younger people is directed to national or international causes which have a greater social media presence and the capabilities to capture time or money instantly, but which have limited impact in the North East. 

As worthy as those causes are, our role at VONNE is to support charities in the North East, and so if we are to do that effectively we want them to be able to reach out to a variety of people in their area who might want to engage with them – not just those who will do so by more traditional means.

I am now in a position to be able to help in a very small way (thanks to ERDF funding and a strategic investment by the VONNE trustees), by acting as a catalyst for organisations to get the time and space they need to think about digital and innovation, and by linking them to others who may be able to help them.

How VONNE is helping

You’ll see a range of events and workshops coming up from VONNE over the next couple of years which aim to give organisations this thinking time and space – from Social Tech Meets to Innovation in Practice workshops.

These sessions are not just about engaging younger people, obviously. I hope that everyone will be able to achieve lots of different things by attending them; including spotting opportunities to save money, build partnerships, and to develop more efficient systems and processes.

I feel fortunate that we are at the beginning of a three year programme of innovation support, which means that there is plenty of scope to develop new events, training and support that meet the needs of the sector as they become apparent.

I hope to meet and engage with lots more VONNE members over the coming months – and I would be really interested in your views, positive or negative, on innovation and greater use of digital technology in the VCSE sector.

What is stopping you from exploring it?
Or what is happening now that you are?

Please feel free to drop me a line or give me a call if you’d like to share your take on it: or 0191 233 2000.

 Ps – the drawer is now back on its runner.