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Strategic Philanthropy

Embracing Innovation: How can philanthropy do better?

By April 8, 2016October 13th, 2021No Comments

What could a surgeon – and in particular, one who is known for his work on end-of-life care – have to say about philanthropy and innovation? Surely this question lurked in the minds of those who listened to Dr. Atul Gawande at last week’s final Centennial event for the Boston Foundation.

The dinner discussion focused on an intriguing and challenging question: how can philanthropy best support innovation in Boston and beyond? As a world-renowned surgeon, author, healthcare innovator, and co-founder of a global nonprofit, Dr. Gawande was certainly worth listening to on this particular topic.

He began with a simple yet profound observation: there is often a very large gap between what we know and what we do. The reality is that change is almost always difficult and social innovations rarely occur quickly. As a rule, change cannot occur unless there is openness to considering how things might be done differently, or that they could be done differently at all.

Many years ago, Margaret Mahoney, President of the Commonwealth Fund at the time, described innovators as people who are fixed on good results and who move the world forward by defining problems differently. They transform the possible into the real. They are not necessarily inventors themselves, but rather connectors between invention and society.

True innovation is not always about some great new idea. It often involves taking what we know and applying it to the real world, perhaps in some new way or through a different process. In philanthropy, innovation is often incremental in nature rather than groundbreaking – it’s part of a process that requires more than a quick fix. It can be about looking creatively at available resources. It can be about creating different incentives that can change systems and lives. It can be about turning traditional ideas on their head to uncover less obvious needs and funding opportunities.

At TPI, we encourage donors of all types to be open to new ways of thinking about social problems and their potential solutions – to approach their work with a “beginner’s mind”, and to ask questions that focus on long-term results. For starters:

(1)    How can we look at fresh ways to address root causes and promote systems change? 

(2)    What innovative ideas and approaches might lead to greater impact on a particular issue or in a particular field?

(3)    How can we do more with less? Are there more cost-effective approaches that should be tested or scaled up in certain fields?

How can donors bring a “beginner’s mind” to their work, and encourage innovation that could lead to greater impact? TPI and our clients use a variety of methods. Donors can:

  • Bring together grantees who are working on similar issues. By sharing ideas, lessons, experiences, and challenges, such gatherings can encourage out-of-the-box thinking, experimentation with new approaches, and collaboration in ways that lead to greater impact.
  • Go beyond grantees and engage the recipients of services provided by nonprofits to gain a deeper understanding of issues, as well as input in crafting solutions to problems. Ask them what they need and want, and what their ideas may be for getting there. Listen first before trying to “fix” a problem.
  • Conduct an idea scan to seek input from a variety of experienced practitioners, experts, researchers, and other leaders in a particular field.
  • Convene diverse practitioners, creative thinkers, and others for an Idea Lab or deep dive to analyze data and knowledge relevant to a particular issue, explore ideas from other fields and disciplines, and spark fresh ideas and creative thinking.
  • Solicit ideas through a Request for Proposals (RFP) process. By issuing an open-ended invitation to practitioners, funders can empower those who deal with issues on a day-to-day basis to put forward creative solutions to complex problems.

Innovation in philanthropy does not – and should not – mean funding new ideas simply for the sake of starting something that is different or unusual. It does mean encouraging nonprofit leaders, educators, and funders to consider new ways of doing things that could be more effective. Perhaps we can all learn from Dr. Gawande’s groundbreaking work in the healthcare field as we continue to search for ways philanthropy can help to catalyze change.