Leveraging Stakeholder Insights to Drive NGO Innovation

NGOs are increasingly recognizing the importance of innovation. In a sector where resources are often limited, creative problem-solving, novel processes, and the integration of new technologies all have the potential to help organizations meet their goals. While traditionally innovation has not been an area of focus for many NGOs, as highlighted in a recent piece by Civil Society Academy, larger organizations have “started employing innovation managers, adapted more systematic innovation processes and also invested more money in developing innovations.”

For NGOs starting out on this journey, there’s an obvious untapped resource to investigate: their stakeholders — donors, sponsors, volunteers, and beneficiaries. These stakeholders are reservoirs of knowledge and experience, which can be leveraged to drive innovation. By better understanding the nuanced needs and expectations of their stakeholders, NGOs can develop new solutions and campaigns that resonate more deeply with their communities. And to do so effectively requires a renewed focus on the customer experience.

Understanding customer experience in an NGO context

In the NGO sector, CX has slightly different connotations than it does in the commercial sector. While, like traditional businesses, non-profits have a drive to maximize revenue generation in some interactions, specifically fundraising and donor engagement, the focus is generally on more meaningful interactions. The basis of the NGO-stakeholder relationship is understanding and responding to the unique experiences, expectations, and needs of those they support, and communicating this to those who support them — in order to drive action.

The purpose of CX in NGOs is therefore multifaceted. It can guide organizations in tailoring their services more effectively by better understanding the needs and motivations of beneficiaries. It can enhance donor engagement and retention, turning one-time contributors into long-term supporters. But perhaps most importantly, it can lead to organic innovations — new ways of solving old problems, inspired directly by the experiences and feedback of key stakeholders on all sides.

For example, a recent article by The Drum detailed a case study from 2020, where the British charity Age UK used customer insights to establish that a primary concern for its service users — mostly elderly people with limited interactions outside the home — was the lack of human contact caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This led Age UK to develop a new program, “Call in Time” which connected volunteers and service users via telephone to minimize loneliness among the people it served.

Examples like this one underline the importance of CX in an NGO context as a source of ideas that allow organizations to adapt and respond to changing circumstances, and provide a better quality of service. But on a practical level, how do NGO CX teams go about gathering this vital information?

The role of CX in uncovering stakeholder insights

To be effective, customer experience management in NGOs needs to go beyond surface-level insights, delving into the deeper sentiments and experiences of those engaged with the organization’s mission. It’s not just about gathering feedback, it’s about interpreting and understanding the underlying messages conveyed by donors, volunteers, and beneficiaries.

That introduces an immediate challenge for many NGOs — the availability of the necessary resources to devote sufficient time to unraveling the content of digital messaging and in-person interactions in order to extract useful insights. But with the advent of AI and big data analysis tools, techniques for gathering and analyzing stakeholder feedback are evolving, and becoming more cost-effective.

For example, NGOs can utilize sentiment analysis on social media and feedback platforms to gauge stakeholder perceptions and identify emerging trends, or AI-powered analysis tools developed for helpdesks to analyze stakeholder conversations and generate actionable insights.

These types of tools can process high volumes of content quickly and effectively, allowing NGOs to take full advantage of the untapped value in their archived and current communications — from emails to text messages, online discussions and even voice calls.

However, comprehensive data gathering is only the first challenge to overcome. The real value lies in the interpretation and application of this data. By analyzing feedback across various touchpoints, NGOs can identify pain points, unmet needs, and areas with significant potential for innovation. This could range from tweaking communication strategies to overhauling service delivery methods. As Thierry Agagliate, Head of Innovation at Terre des Hommes put it in a recent interview with CINFO, innovation isn’t always “an invention or a new idea — but also a working solution that represents a new way of addressing a problem.”

To be successful, the approach must be cyclical — it’s a continuous process of listening, learning, and adapting, where every stakeholder interaction becomes an opportunity to gather further insights and expand the organizational knowledge base.

Translating insights into actionable innovations

Having gathered the insights, translating them into actionable innovations is the most crucial step for NGOs. This involves converting feedback and data into practical, impactful solutions that align with the organization’s goals and mission. This process is not just about idea generation for its own sake — it also requires crafting strategies or processes to effectively implement these ideas.

One effective technique in this “translation” process can be the use of design thinking, as outlined in the Civil Society Academy article referenced above. This approach involves a clear focus on stakeholder needs, defining the problems, ideating solutions, prototyping, and testing in this context. For example, an NGO might use design thinking to develop new fundraising strategies that resonate better with donors, based on their feedback.

Another model, outlined by Agile In Nonprofits, is the use of MVPs — minimum viable products — to reduce the risk of spending too much time or resource on an innovation that ultimately turns out to be flawed. The principle is simple — start by defining the most basic version of the end product that has enough features for stakeholders to evaluate it, and build it to that stage before seeking feedback.

For example, an NGO looking to create a new donor engagement website could build a small-scale version with fewer costly design elements or multimedia assets, and use it to test the core function, the signup and donation process. Once that has proven to be successful with the intended users, it’s then worth devoting additional resources to refining and adding features. This “pilot” approach is key to cost-effectively developing and scaling ideas when resources are limited and allows for the testing of more than one innovation simultaneously.

To put innovation into practice, NGOs need a structured approach. This might involve setting up dedicated teams or committees focused on innovation, allocating resources for experimentation and piloting, and establishing metrics to measure success based on stakeholder feedback — a core activity for CX teams. The key is to ensure that the innovations are sustainable, align with the core values of the NGO, and effectively address the needs and expectations of stakeholders.

Implementing a CX-centric approach

The first step in implementing a customer experience-based approach to innovation is building capable CX teams. NGOs must ensure that their teams understand the importance of CX and are committed to placing stakeholder insights at the forefront of their decision-making process. Training and development play a crucial role here, equipping staff with the skills to effectively gather and interpret stakeholder feedback.

Outsourcing CX to specialist teams can be a viable option, especially for NGOs with limited internal resources. Specialist teams bring a wealth of experience and can offer fresh perspectives on stakeholder engagement and feedback analysis, as well as provide a scalable and adaptable option for organizations whose need for CX provision varies on a seasonal or campaign basis.

A blended model, combining in-house expertise with outsourced specialists, may often be the most effective approach, combining the in-depth knowledge of full-time employees or volunteers with the elastic capacity, extended contact hours, and technical aptitude of outside CX specialists.


Embracing a CX-centric approach is essential for NGOs aiming to innovate and grow sustainably. This approach not only enhances stakeholder engagement but also serves as a key driver for uncovering insights that can lead to impactful innovation. The challenge lies in effectively gathering, analyzing, and acting on stakeholder feedback, a process that demands skilled CX teams, whether developed in-house or sourced externally.

Working with a partner like SourceCX can be invaluable for NGOs looking to onboard proven strategies from the private sector and apply them to non-profit use cases, including support with process innovations, new technology, and specialist human expertise.

As NGOs continue to grow and evolve in an increasingly competitive and challenging landscape, the integration of a robust CX framework isn’t just necessary for building engagement — it’s imperative in driving innovation to ensure their continued relevance and ability to deliver on their core mission.