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.