Foundations: Innovation, Really?

Among interviewees and participant advisors to the project that resulted in the report Caring to Change, many see foundations as embodying double standards for innovation and risk. With all the trendy and appealing chatter about “innovation” and game-changing, scalable solutions (see White House, see new journals, see social venture philanthropy), I’m wondering if mainstream and family foundations are enough a part of the conversation.

Foundations can afford to be risk-takers. Arguably, that’s exactly what they are supposed to be. These paragraphs, which I discovered buried in the middle of the report, shouted out to me as tough and spot-on critiques. I bolded the particularly sassy quote that I loved.

“While there was an appreciation for encouraging genuine creativity and timely attention to emerging issues, there was widespread agreement that overvaluing innovation requires nonprofits to re-jiggle and change successful programs (or those that are beginning to work) into new forms to satisfy foundations’ desire for something different in the next grant cycle…Too often, if the innovations do not provide positive results, those who suffer are the nonprofit organizations (which are seen by the foundation to have failed, rather than having suffered the consequences of becoming reluctant guinea pigs) and their constituents – rather than the foundation, which required the innovation and risk in the first place.

“Many interviewees built on this argument by stating that in spite of insistence on innovation on the part of grantees, foundations tend to be risk-averse with respect to their own operations and appearances, and that they are excessively eager to avoid making or acknowledging mistakes on their own part. One program officer jokingly quipped that ‘If we’re here in perpetuity, what difference does it make if we risk screwing up all of next year?’

Individually, and collectively, grantmakers have a relatively modest amount of money to invest. The credibility and influence they bring is comparatively outsized.

Foundations were the original source of social venture capital. For the sake of communities worldwide, and for widespread and sustaining social change, let’s hope Mark’s report and the new voices—and resources—around social innovation inspire and embrace them as colleagues.