Have you ever heard of frugal innovation? That’s what happens when you help improve people’s lives but have a limited budget—an all-too-familiar situation for the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. The 2007 recipient of the Kravis Prize, BRAC and its founder Fazle Abed have turned such limitations into a powerful learning tool by staging a Frugal Innovation Forum in March. Asif Saleh, senior director of BRAC Strategy, Communications, and Capacity, shared some of the lessons of this forum in a recent article in Forbes magazine.

The reason for the BRAC forum was a simple principle: By providing a venue for the exchange of ideas, you increase the  reach and possibility of individual organizations with limited means. It’s an old, familiar idea that novelist E.M. Forster once expressed perfectly in two words in his novel “Howard’s End” — Only connect.

When organizations in the non-profit sector connect and share ideas, solutions to common problems can be found far more easily than when these organizations face them alone. As BRAC’s Saleh writes in Forbes:

 It’s easy to pay lip service to the need to learn from one other, but actually how one does that is not entirely understood.  Rarely can a ready-made model be dropped into a new place.  Even the process of creation is hugely important in developing a sophisticated understanding of not just what works, but why it works.  “Everyone needs to reinvent the wheel,” wrote Madhav Chavan, founder of Pratham, an incredible Indian organization transforming education nationally, “it’s important because all of us need our own kind of wheel.”

Among the other lessons that Saleh passes along? It’s important to examine and improve internal processes for doing things  (“the biggest and most successful organizations rarely owe their success to a product,” he says, “but rather their activities and capabilities”) and to resist any inklings of doubt about your goals (“there are plenty of challenges on the path to scale–don’t’ let your mindset be one of them!”).

Though BRAC applies “frugal” to this category of social work and innovation, another word  — “creativity”  —  works just as well. When resources are limited, you have to turn up the flame on your ideas in order to accomplish objectives. That’s a lesson not only helpful to participants in the Frugal Innovation Forum, but also to organizations anywhere in the world.


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