Newton, Innovation, and the Best Non-Profits

From Rod Nichols, AFGG Senior Advisor

Musing about frontiers for science, Isaac Newton, the 19th century genius, said “…the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” He understood, profoundly, that even his own extraordinary insights in physics were but “a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary.” That outlook also applies to the endless frontiers for innovations among the operations of non-profit groups.

For every social “mission”  — from health and education to agriculture – innovations are always emerging, sometimes through research, often through “disruptive” technologies such as telecommunications, or through renewed organizational zest such as inspired leadership by volunteers. When budgets are tight (are they ever loose?), an excellent non-profit will figure out a way to innovate in order to pursue its programs more effectively. Then it will be marked for greater success.

This is why the Alliance For Global Good launched this year the first round of an internationally competitive Innovation Fund. The four winners were announced in October.  Every one charted an unusual path to earn income. Each winner uncovered a “prettier shell” on a beach it knew well.

The Alliance designed its “value proposition” for operating the Innovation Fund. First, it brought together the lessons learned from the difficulties most non-profits experience in “going to market” with new initiatives. One lesson was the chronic shortage of flexible capital needed to innovate, to open a new line of “business.”  Second, the Alliance decide to proceed with a national competition and funded all of the staff and infrastructure required to run the competition and assure the quality controls, with the highest standards. The Alliance indulged in no ad hoc or idiosyncratic selection of grantees.  Instead it found the best from a fair and open competition.

Now the Alliance seeks donor-partners to expand the second round of competition for the Innovation Fund in 2013.  Whatever a donor’s interests – helping the environment, or reducing poverty, or promoting economic development – a wide-open request-for-proposals, as with the 2012 process, will revealed a remarkable range of topics and organizations.  So almost any donor’s priorities can be fulfilled.

Opportunities in 2013 are available for a donor to participate in the selection process, and to be named in a grant award. Any donor to the Alliance’s Innovation Fund will ensure that its gifts go to leading organizations. The groups will have won a stiff global competition. And these best-in-class groups will strengthen their  independence, better buffered from the fashions in philanthropic and governmental policies.

Consider a final point about what is important in this initiative. Successful innovation is seamlessly related to organizational capacity. This is especially true for beleaguered non-profits. As Clayton Christenson put the point in his classic book,  “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” writing about the complexity of pursuing innovation in for-profit ventures: “Guessing the right strategy at the outset isn’t nearly as important to success as conserving enough resources… so that new business initiatives get a second or third stab at getting it right.”  That is why the Alliance’s Innovation Fund convened a tough and experienced “pitch panel” to interview the 2012 finalists.  The central question in this final review was whether the organization had the savvy, the resilience, the business toughness, to succeed.

Yes, Newton had it right: science faces an ocean of possibilities and puzzles to be cracked. Similarly, nonprofit groups face an ocean of possible innovations to be explored. Discovering and seizing them takes insight, persistence, a bit of luck, and a dose of unencumbered capital.  That’s what the Alliance For Global Good aims to enable.




Proud to announce our newest partner


Leonard Kaplan’s creation of the Alliance for Global Good was the expression of his passionate philanthropy.  It’s also the logical outgrowth of all that came before it.  Together with his wife and philanthropic partner Tobee, and through a family foundation later renamed TOLEO, they gave unselfishly of resources and time to improve their community and the world for more than twenty-five years.

Tobee & Leonard Kaplan

Tobee & Leonard Kaplan

The Alliance’s focus on five areas of giving—health, education, environment, poverty, and world relations—is mirrored in Leonard’s past.  He has made major gifts to Duke University Medical Center and the Duke Comprehensive Cancer and Heart Centers, to the Lineberger Cancer Center at UNC Chapel Hill, to the Cardiac Rehabilitation program at Moses Cone Hospital, and had a leadership position at the Greensboro Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.  In 2004, Leonard and Tobee built the new building for the Women’s Resource Center in Greensboro. He created scholarships for residents of Guilford County to attend North Carolina colleges and universities, and was a founding donor of Elon University Law School.  Critically, in partnership with the Kellogg Foundation, Leonard helped create the Center for Organizational Leadership, a philanthropic studies program (which was one of first nationally to educate non-profit executives).

“Everyone wants to leave something to their grandchildren.”

“The money won’t matter if the world they live in is so far gone,” Kaplan says. “The opportunity now is to take some of what might become their inheritance, and use it soon to make the world a better place.”

Addressing poverty, Leonard made possible the building of two houses for Habitat for Humanity, and by providing food for hungry people both close to home in Greensboro, and as far abroad as the former Soviet Union.   The Kaplans were staunch supporters of Trickle Up, which provides grant financing to women in the developing world who want to start their own microenterprise.

Leonard gave not only of his wealth, but also of his time and expertise, taking on leadership positions in many organizations and campaigns such as the Greater Greensboro United Way DeToqueville Society, and as a Core Member of ACTION Greensboro, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education, revitalization of downtown Greensboro, and leveraging economic development.

Active in their community of faith, the Kaplans built a new building for the Greensboro Jewish Federation, and for the Hillel youth organization at U.N.C., Chapel Hill.  He served on the board of the Jewish Foundation of Greensboro, and on that of the national Hillel organization, and was a founder of Camp Ramah Darom.

Viewing giving as a responsibility of affluence, Leonard led by example, and encouraged others to do the same.  He created Wealth & Giving, an educational program designed to inspire the largest wealth holders in this country to be more generous.  The Alliance continues that work by promoting and providing donors with opportunities for effective and efficient giving.

Read more about the Five Guiding Principles.