Philanthropic foundations and social innovation: How do we accelerate our learning?

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

The last quarter century has seen significant changes in the world of foundation philanthropy. New pools of earned wealth (think Jeff SkollBill Gates or Skype founder Niklas Zennström) have accelerated traditional philanthropy’s shift from responsive grantmaking towards experiments with different forms and degrees of more proactive, targeted and strategic or collaborative philanthropy. Some of these changes have included the adoption and experimentation with the mindset, tools and methodologies of social innovation.

To further and advance this adoption, social innovation grantmakers from three continents are being convened for the first time ever.

The goal is to share and explore what they and their peers are learning about social innovation philanthropy. This new “Funders Node,” hosted by Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), has the following goals:

  • Address the lack of shared knowledge among global organizations supporting and deploying social innovation;
  • Help answer vexing questions whose tentative answers could unlock transformational collaborations and high impact social innovation;
  • Increase funding for systemic change and social innovation while improving its likelihood of success.

I began my career as a grantmaker four decades ago. Experience has taught me the truth of the adage: “it’s easy to give money away.”  On the other hand, it is incredibly hard for a funder to achieve major impact. Successful social innovation philanthropy is a tough occupation.

Responsible foundations increasingly recognize their social change covenant to be a vital part of the R&D system for solutions to our world’s most complex challenges. But, by definition, these solutions are ill-understood. This means that it is an emergent and long term process to build new, generative pathways and social innovations spawning indispensable public goods (like a low carbon economy, global social equity, and purposeful meaning in daily life).

Funders grapple with their support role enabling globally-significant social innovations. Are there minimum specifications high impact social innovations depend on?

Seven topics are increasingly visible:

  • SYSTEM CHANGE How are social innovations developed, curated, and aligned towards system change
  • COMMUNICATIONS & CULTURE An innovation’s success can be foiled by weak communications. How does a communications strategy employ a meaningful narrative? Similarly, how are successful innovations lifted up by — and embedded in — many diverse cultures and values. What intentional steps can be taken to advance a positive cultural embrace?
  • POLITICS OF CHANGE How do social innovators manage the politics of social change, conceiving social innovations in a jujitsu manoeuvre that guilefully co-opts the power of opponents at the same time as enfranchising groups and peoples historically excluded;
  • ETHICAL VALUES & SHADOW SIDE How are innovations both grounded in ethics and  values, as well as probed and tested to anticipate and manage the shadow side, their inevitable and unanticipated negative outcomes?
  • INNOVATION PIPELINES How are integrated innovation system pipelines built in order to support all parts of the life-cycle of necessary social innovations? How are early stage components nurtured in ways that empower contributions by passionate amateurs who are embedded in community and reflect authentic local needs? How is scaling enabled? How can philanthropic capital beyond grants leverage other forms of capital?

These “min specs” are difficult to embrace and then successfully execute. Coupled with the nature of complex challenges, this means risks are an occupational hazard.

The bottom line is that success for social innovation funders flows from building, participating in and being guided by a high quality peer learning system.

Tim Draimin is a board member of Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) who advises The J.W. McConnell Foundation and guides their multi-partner innovation sandbox, Social Innovation Generation (SiG). He founded Tides Canada Foundation and sits on the board of the Trico Charitable Foundation and the Scientific Advisory Board of Grand Challenges Canada.