Monday, June 22, 2009

Identifying Innovation

I want to return to an issue that sparked some healthy debate a few weeks ago but didn’t go far enough in my opinion.

When Michele Obama first announced the Office of Social Innovation, bloggers like Allison Fine posed some really important questions about what is meant by innovation and how to ensure that the government doesn’t just reward the largest and most tested programs in lieu of smaller, sometimes newer, and even untested efforts at innovation. I’d like to pose this same question to the philanthropic sector.

How does innovation get funded and are we ok with the way it currently works?

Everybody knows that these are tough times for nonprofits and even tougher times for new nonprofits, IssueLab among them. We frequently hear from foundations that they are only supporting their existing grantees or that they aren't currently accepting proposals from organizations they don’t already know. (A recent online discussion about grantwriting at Charity Channel only underscored the fact that we are hardly alone in this experience.) It’s not that I don’t understand the pressures foundations are under but if they aren’t going to fund newcomers for the next two years how exactly will innovation get funded? And what sorts of innovative projects will simply disappear because they don't have the necessary funds to continue their work?

The difficulty in even introducing new ideas to potential funders reflects what I think are two conflicting values at work here. Foundations (and the government) want to support innovation but at the same time they place enormous value on legitimacy. We see this everyday in the work that we do at IssueLab. One of our core missions is to build visibility for the work of smaller nonprofits. There is no shortage of great research coming from organizations that maybe produce one or two reports a year. But these reports don’t get the kind of search engine rankings, graphic treatment, traffic, or audience that are too often confused with legitimate research.

Anyone who has ever read anything about job training programs knows the critical role that legitimacy plays in the vicious cycle of poverty. If you don’t look the part you don’t get the job and if you don’t get the job you will never have the resources to look the part. The second nasty thing about legitimacy is of course the question of access. Organizations and individuals who lack legitimacy also lack access. And in the case of funding innovation, they simply lack access to funding opportunities and to exposure for their ideas. At IssueLab we spend a great deal of time actively searching for research from smaller organizations. It’s key to the work we do and it’s why our collection can include research from a small after-school media project alongside research from the MacArthur Foundation. What will foundations and the Office of Social Innovation do to identify innovative projects?

What are the equivalent measures in the sector for judging the legitimacy of organizations? Other funders, name recognition, buzz, scale, earned income revenue, the ability to measure results and impact? How many innovative startup projects and organizations can claim all these measures? And will they have access to either the Office of Social Innovation or to ever scarcer foundation funding?

If as a sector we don't answer these questions, I am afraid we won't even know what we're missing!

(Image provided under a cc license by General Wesc)


  1. This is very well stated. My area of expertise is youth justice and youth development programs and these problems affect us primarily through the "evidence-based" policy movement. The most worrisome development is the growing support for state laws that restrict the use of public funding to programs and interventions that have already been tested with experimental evaluation designs. We all support good evaluation, but not when it is used to exclude new ideas and to lock programs into a few models already supported with research investments.

  2. Thanks for your comment Jeff and the insight about state level restrictions! It really is a disturbing example of how the process we both describe is not only an observable trend but also a formalized process.

  3. On the one hand, I agree that funding only "evidence-based" programs is too limited, but on the other hand, we need to prioritize funding programs that are most likely to do some real good. We owe that to all the people who need services. The fact is that many programs are ineffective or even cause harm; it's more difficult to bring about positive outcomes than most people realize.

    So, how can we identify programs with potential to create real social value? I think David Hunter and Steve Butz are onto something when they identify several dimensions along which increased capacity should increase our confidence in their ability to produce positive outcomes:

    To me, what they propose constitutes a reasonable and meaningful balance between the evidence-based camp and the blindly trusting "you must be doing good even if you can't show any data, because you are working on a good cause" camp.

    If the Social Innovation Fund adopts criteria like these, the door would be open for many more organizations than those who have been through a rigorous evaluation.

    Ingvild Bjornvold
    Director of Advocacy
    Social Solutions

  4. Ingvild, I agree wholeheartedly about the need for evaluation and the importance for organizations to both understand and communicate their impact and intention.

    But my concern in bringing up the whole question of legitimacy (and more specifically the issue of access) is that most nonprofits, including some very innovative ones, can't even make it onto the playing field.

    What happens too often is that legitimacy gets all muddled up with competence. So, if the office of social innovation, or for that matter any foundation, identifies innovative nonprofits by looking at what has already been funded or what has already shown impact, how do we ever identify really innovative organizations at the fringes?

  5. I completely understand and share your concern. I would love to hear what you think about the criteria in the publication I provided a link to (also the accompanying Guide to Social Investing at - it's about LIKELIHOOD to create outcomes (not necessarily proven impact).

    We need a way to identify which organizations are more likely than others to make a difference, which is what that document addresses. I believe the Social Innovation Fund should look for innovation, but that cannot be the sole criterion - there needs to be some additional criteria to determine whether the organization has the potential to create real change (competence - so the money is not wasted). I think those criteria would open the door to the smaller, competent and innovative organizations I believe you have in mind.

  6. Sean over at Tactical Philanthropy just posted a really useful summary of how exactly the Office of Social Innovation will operate.

    "I would summarize it further by saying that the Fund will provide grants to grantmakers who will use the funds to support increased capacity and growth of nonprofit initiatives and who will base their funding decisions on rigorous outcome measurement. The Act demands that participants in the program be dedicated collectors of data and that they share their knowledge of what works with the field."

    It will be curious to see how this changes, or whether it changes, the way that grantmakers (of the non-government stripe) fund innovation in the future.


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