Your next innovation partner: a charity?

When looking for customer insight, have you considered tapping into a non-profit’s knowledge and network?

On a sunny May morning in west London a team from Santander found their way through the back streets off Ladbroke Grove to Open Age, a charity that supports hundreds of older people with an impressive range of activities and classes. A team from a big corporate organisation visiting a charity – they must have been there for a volunteering teambuilding day, right? Or to do some fundraising? Or if not that, perhaps to take in some audacious challenge as part of a leadership development programme they’re on?

No. None of the above. They were there to learn.

For this was Santander’s Innovation team – and they wanted to know more about older people’s banking preferences, with a particular focus on digital banking. But why not run focus groups or do some market research? Why go to a charity? As Sigga Sigurdardottir, Head of Innovation at Santander said: “We know the benefit of working with real customers in real situations. Getting a feel for someone’s needs through real interaction and better understanding their vulnerabilities and preferences, is an important part of how we work in the Santander Customer and Innovation team, so we were excited to do this with Three Hands and their community”.

It was the beginning of a three-day innovation journey for the team, starting with an ‘immersion’ experience designed to unearth insight on this market through interactive sessions, from the fun – for instance, a lively debate on whether older people should embrace the digital age – to the downright serious – conversations with carers about the challenges of supporting an older person with their banking.

From the insight came ideas, and from the ideas prototypes – all developed with Open Age staff and members as ‘innovation partners’.

We usually think of the flow of resources between businesses and charities as one-way, from business to charity; money, time and expertise being the main commodities. But in the corporate bubble it is easy to forget something very important: charities know an awful lot about the everyday issues that affect customers, like age, health, financial vulnerability and disability. And while charities are known for supporting people deemed vulnerable in some form or other, there is a fine line between a so-called vulnerable customer and the mainstream customer base, as some of the following examples demonstrate.

Legal and General has long been an exponent of tapping into charities’ expertise to help answer business questions. When they wanted to understand how user-friendly their shopping centres (part of their asset portfolio) were, Graham Precey, Head of CSR, didn’t engage a consultant but asked the charity Whizz-Kidz to have the young people they support carry out an audit. The result wasn’t only insight on how to make improvements for wheelchair users, but for mums and dads with prams too.

Still with Legal and General, when they wanted phone-based customer service people to be better equipped to serve home insurance customers whose houses had been flooded, they engaged the RNLI’s flood rescue team to demonstrate what being in a flood is really like through realistic simulations at the Olympic white water rafting centre. As Graham commented, “What business wouldn’t want ‘critical friends’ as part of an innovation process to make sure that its products and services are fit for purpose and wider reaching?”

The relationship between Howden’s, who make kitchens, and Leonard Cheshire Disability provides an inspiring examples of design thinking that starts niche and goes mainstream. Howden’s started to donate and install kitchens in Leonard Cheshire homes for service-users who love to cook and in the process made modifications, such as adjustable height surfaces, with the users in mind. Doing so resulted in a whole new way of thinking that resulted in the Howden’s range of inclusive kitchens, which are marketed to a mainstream as well as a disabled audience. Take note: 100% of the insight that went into the development of that range came from working with Leonard Cheshire Disability staff and service-users.

Here is just one more example. The life insurance product team at Royal London wanted to learn about the changing world of cancer with a view to doing a better job for customers with a diagnosis. To do so they worked with Three Hands and cancer support charity Maggie’s, following the same three-stage innovation process adopted by Santander. The immersion experiences involved frank and at times difficult conversations with people supported by Maggie’s – but those conversations paved the way to new product ideas.


So what do you need to get right to successfully embrace this approach to innovation? Here are five big tips:

1.     Define the problem or opportunity. In other words, be very clear on the brief – what do you want to learn? What market gap are you trying to fill?

2.     Change your view of charities. They are equal partners, collaborators in innovation and should be viewed – and rewarded – as such.

3.     Let go. In order to get into a genuine mind-set of design thinking, leave your preconceptions, judgments and ‘ready-made solutions’ behind. Be present and revel in the immersive experience.

4.     Embrace it as a process of innovation. Filtering out the most important insights from a whole sea of learning can be hard, but doing so is the key to developing the best new ideas.

5.     Think long term. The end of a three-day process with a charity, for example, is just the beginning. You’ll need to tell the stories back in the business to help you get your new ideas off the ground.


Back at Santander, the team is focused on developing the prototypes for the new products and services they devised with Open Age. “This was a truly insightful session”, said Sigga, “and one that not only resulted in new ideas but that has also made us think about the older people’s market in new ways. It was such an experience. It would be difficult to forget about some of the older people we worked with and the very clear messages they gave us.”

Jan Levy, Three Hands

Click here for more on Three Hands’ social insight for innovation process and contact Jan here.

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