Canada's International Aid Agencies Need Innovation to Drive Impact

International NGOs across the country need to prioritize innovation to remain sustainable and impactful

Why It Matters

Technological, mission, and demographic shifts are changing the way international organizations work. For Canada to be at the forefront of addressing global challenges, experimentation must become an embedded capacity in aid and development organizations.

International non-governmental organizations have always been impact-focused in their efforts to help people around the globe.

Measures of success are obvious when it is about helping a child start a healthy life, supporting enterprising women to launch a small business, or delivering humanitarian assistance in a crisis.

Over the years, NGOs have adapted to changing global contexts, taken on new challenges, and learned from experience to reach more people, reduce costs, and ensure positive social and economic change is more sustainable.

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Yet evidence suggests that the biggest challenges for this sector are still ahead.

Over a 10- to 20-year horizon, the very existence of international aid organizations will be challenged.

In many ways, this is a good thing. Capacity of governments in the Global South continues to grow and is pushing civil society to evolve in its own role, moving away from basic service delivery in many countries.

Local civil society groups and leaders in other countries are increasingly opposed to externally driven service delivery and are looking instead for partners to help them achieve their own goals. Yet even with widespread positive progress, armed conflicts and the impacts climate change in certain parts of the world continue to drive increases in extreme poverty and are challenging NGOs to operate in new settings.

Technological change is offering huge potential for progress and more effective ways of working, while it is also raising the prospect for the disintermediation of NGOs — bypassing of international aid agencies — as donors consider connecting directly to good initiatives in the Global South.

In Canada, a strong and growing NGO community also means that thousands of international aid agencies compete for limited funding, from private sources and from government.

Despite overall increases in charitable giving in Canada in the last decade, this has been from increased donation sizes from a shrinking number of aging donors. Religious service attendance is one of the most positively correlated factors with charitable giving, and it is in steady decline across Canada.

These factors combined with a millennial generation that is more project-driven in their giving (i.e.: less attached to one organization over another) suggest a potential financial reckoning is coming for Canadian NGOs when the baby boomer generation passes on.

The universality of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals presents a further challenge of relevance to Canadian international NGOs, who will increasingly be called upon to connect their international work to a domestic development agenda.

As it seeks to adapt to changing times, the Canadian international aid sector can draw on its immense wealth of experience and a history of innovation. Canadian innovations in health research have made huge contributions globally. Our NGOs have developed and shared new technologies for mapping community assets and for deploying cash-based programming, and they have delivered acclaimed innovative programs to empower girls in poor countries to build a strong future for themselves. Our NGOs have launched joint ventures and pooled funds to increase efficiency and impact, and created exchange platforms with the private sector to improve social impact. In nutrition, water and sanitation, and many other fields, Canadian organizations lead.

As decision-makers in the international aid sector grapple with mission-critical shifts in their environment, innovation is increasingly needed to chart a sustainable and impactful future for their organizations. Sector leaders are looking to innovate through the challenges ahead in all areas of their work. From technology to business models, from communications to HR, everything is on the table.

Through extensive consultations, Canada’s leading international NGOs have asked that their representative association, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC), to take on a strategic mandate for fostering innovation within the sector.

As of 2018, an innovation agenda is one of three pillars in our strategic plan. And yet, so much uncertainty surrounds innovation. The very definition of “innovation” is itself widely varied.  It means that our journey to champion sector innovation starts by considering the types of problems our membership needs to solve, identifying where and how innovation has been successful, and how we can bring these lessons to everyone.