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January 2017 (3 posts)

Fueling Innovation Through Competition
January 25, 2017

(June Sugiyama is director of Vodafone Americas Foundation, leading programs for social impact innovation.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

June Sugiyama PhotoInnovation is a word used so frequently that perhaps it has become almost trivial. Globally, we use innovation to describe many things, from new technologies, to new processes, to disruptive ideas, but the action of innovation itself becomes harder to define, and harder still to execute. Countless ideas are abandoned because entrepreneurs could not find the proper funding or mentorship to build their idea from a mere thought to a reality.  

Many entrepreneurs and startups will turn to venture capitalists (VCs) to try to gain funding and support, but it is a challenge in and of itself to get a meeting with a VC, much less secure VC money. This is where foundations and philanthropies, which might be more poised to take risks, can help fill the gap by providing grants to new social impact ideas and start-ups. At the Vodafone Americas Foundation – whether through grants or competition – our goal is to support organizations that use wireless technology to impact change, spark innovation, improve lives, transform the global development sector, or empower women and girls.

“ Countless ideas are abandoned because entrepreneurs could not find the proper funding or mentorship to build their idea from a mere thought to a reality.”

One avenue we take to support organizations – whether a nonprofit, university project, or start-up – is to provide traditional grants earmarked to help develop their product or service to drive social good. However, traditional grants are not the only model for supporting innovation; companies and foundations big and small are developing competition programs to help good ideas develop and move forward. A competition with specific criteria and parameters becomes a refined filter to find driven and passionate individuals - not an arbitrary search. Both commercial and philanthropic organizations host competitions to find the perfect match for unique, effective, innovative, and sustainable solutions to rise to the surface.

Specifically, for us, since Vodafone is a telecommunications service provider, we focus on the ability of mobile technologies to drive innovation for those in need. Because mobile technology is ubiquitous, with over 7 billion mobile subscribers worldwide, it is one of the most effective tools for social change. Innovative mobile solutions have already started to change economies through mobile money, mobile micro-loans, delivery of healthcare through mHealth, education through mobile platforms, and so much more.

VAF_WIP-w-o-winner-block_3inEach year we look for new ideas that leverage mobile for a better world through our Wireless Innovation Project, (WIP) a competition.  The competition is designed to promote innovation and increase the implementation of wireless-related technology. The competition recently opened its ninth annual call for submissions. In March 2017, we will select the winners, with first place receiving $300,000; second place $200,000; and third place $100,000. The winners can receive both the funding and potential mentoring they need while we can invest in the causes and services that are important and meaningful to our mission.

We are excited each year for the WIP competition because it provides unique opportunities for entrepreneurs and the Foundation alike. For example:

  • We get to see their passion firsthand. Each year, we ask the finalists to pitch their project in person at our California offices. This provides us the opportunity to meet new entrepreneurs (and for them to meet one another) to witness their drive and passion for the project. Although there are costs for the Foundation to hold in-person competitions and get everyone under one roof, we feel strongly about getting to know the person behind the innovation; we need to know that they are as committed as we are to ensure a good partnership.
  • Competition brings out the best. In a competition format, naturally there are winners. Driven by a prize and inspired by their peer competitors, all participants are compelled to perform at their very best. A competition sometimes forces people to think outside of the box and go beyond their original concept to differentiate themselves throughout the competition. Within just the competition period itself, entrepreneurs and their ideas may undergo multiple evolutions to arrive at a distilled, quality product or service. The competition format also allows participants to become inspired by one another’s work in a way that is not often possible in traditional grantmaking in which grantees blindly compete against one another.
  • Focus more on potential than current status. What happens when you have a great idea and not much to show for it yet because it’s simply a little early? While it may not be true for all competition models, our Wireless Innovation Project makes it easier for entrepreneurs to highlight the potential of a product or idea and win the competition based on the future impact it can drive versus actual business results seen to date. This allows a greater range of companies, especially start-ups, to gain funding where they may not have been able to otherwise. Our prize money might be just what they need and just at the right time to propel them to where they need to go, like completing a prototype or testing a market.
  • Gather multiple ideas at once. Our annual competition seeks innovations in more than one issue area so it allows us to tap into a diverse source of information and ideas, all at the same time, as well as support these ideas in a bigger way. While we work with different organizations throughout the year for traditional grants, the WIP competition opens up the possibility for us to witness an individual solution or organization to grow and evolve. In one year, we may have a winner that has a solution for the environment and another for financial inclusion. It is truly an engaging experience to learn about, guide, and finally support so many novel and potentially valuable ideas. The WIP competition allows us to generate new connections that we previously may not have made through the traditional grant-giving route. We can break out of our own network to create larger, more integrated networks with entrepreneurs and startups across multiple industries as we make connections with almost all the applicants – not just the winners. We hope that with these partnerships that we create and foster, we continue to make sustainable and dynamic discoveries for solutions that impact great change. 

There are many competition models across the industry, but our model has already identified outstanding innovations that have gone on to win more accolades and additional funding, which has allowed them to reach market and even expand their solutions to create greater impacts. Two of the many notable examples are Mobile ODT, which uses a phone camera for colposcopies, and Nexleaf, which makes a vaccine monitoring platform. Each has been able to turn their ideas into scalable solutions that are revolutionizing healthcare capabilities in emerging markets.   

Finding what was never imagined possible is why so many foundations, companies, and even governments take advantage of the competition model. The model allows brilliant ideas to come forward and help solve specific, important issues in our world today.

--June Sugiyama

 

Learn from the Transparency Challenge Highlights Reel
January 19, 2017

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives. A version of this post first appeared on the James Irvine Foundation blog.)

Janet Camarena PhotoWho doesn’t love a challenge? Marathons and Olympic events spur individual athletes to break records, mountaintops invite climbers to scale greater heights, and moonshot challenges motivate innovators to aim for the impossible. Could transparency pose similar challenges and opportunities for philanthropy?

Last November, Glasspockets launched a new feature designed to inspire foundations to greater transparency heights. Using data gathered from 81 foundations that have taken and shared the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency assessment, the Glasspockets team identified transparency benefits and trends in a new Foundation Transparency Challenge infographic.  Since it’s often easier to learn by example, the infographic serves as a highlights reel showcasing foundations that are succeeding where most fear to tread, and this post digs in a little deeper to help other foundations learn from some of the selected examples.

Less Pain, Much to Be Gained

The Foundation Transparency Challenge reveals the toughest challenges for philanthropy — those elements that are shared by the fewest participating funders.

The infographic curates the hundreds of documents we have aggregated in Glasspockets to highlight those that can serve as good examples, including pain points for the field such as providing assessments of overall foundation performance, codes of conduct, and grantee feedback mechanisms. Below are observations about each of these based on some good examples from our collection of participants, along with an explanation of why these particular examples were selected.

Assessment of Overall Foundation Performance

Opening up how a foundation measures its own progress develops a culture of shared learning across the field. Despite the fact that many foundations emphasize impact assessment for their grantees, few lead by example and share how they measure their own progress.

Transparency Challenge - Shared Learning Infographic
Only 22 percent (18 foundations) of the 81 Glasspockets participants use their websites as a vehicle to share an overall foundation performance assessment though some do (The James Irvine Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the New York State Health Foundation.)

Irvine’s assessment is also unique because it is updated annually, aligned to the rhythm of a foundation annual report — a good tip for those considering how to make the ritual of the annual report a more beneficial exercise.

Another common pitfall is foundations often focus all of their assessment efforts on the grantmaking side. Dashboard metrics in these three examples of performance assessments include things like social media, reputational capital, communications and learning, staffing, financial performance, and funding in diverse communities, in addition to programmatic dashboards. In other words, they look at the institution as a whole.

Grantee Feedback Mechanism

Providing a way for grantees to provide a foundation with ongoing feedback serves to strengthen relationships with stakeholders and creates a culture of continuous improvement, yet only 31% of our sample do so. Most foundations have a contact form of some kind, but few take the step of creating a form specifically for feedback year-round. Opening up a foundation’s website in this way helps break down the insularity of philanthropy.

“Learn from a new Transparency Challenge infographic, which serves as a highlights reel showcasing foundations that are succeeding where most fear to tread.”

Because it is difficult for foundations to receive unvarnished feedback, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation uses a neutral third party service to collect confidential feedback, in addition to giving the option of providing the foundation with direct feedback at any time.

Another obstacle for feedback is grantee time. A good step taken by both Packard and the Barr Foundation is to provide prompts that make it easier for the grantee to consider areas in which they might have advice for the foundation.

In the case of Barr, its online form resembles a Yelp review format that allows a star rating and offers a quick multiple-choice survey in addition to the ability to provide an open-ended response.

Code of Conduct

Finally, posting a Code of Conduct is a small but simple way to build credibility and public trust by demonstrating an institution’s commitment to professional and ethical conduct. Many foundations do not post a code of ethics or guiding principles, but even for those who do, surprisingly few explain what happens if the code is violated.

The codes of conduct offered up by Commonwealth Fund, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation are good examples for peers; they include rules of engagement that one might expect, and they also have rare but important details about the consequences of a code violation.

These are just a few of many examples in “The Transparency Challenge” infographic, so take a look to see which examples might inspire you to the next mountain peak on your journey to openness. In a future post I’ll review the remaining examples we highlighted and why.

How Philanthropic Is the Trump Cabinet?
January 11, 2017

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center.)

Here are the facts, decide for yourself. That may sound like a radical proposition in what some–after a bitter election season dominated by spin, lies and fake news–are calling a "post-truth world," but it is what we do at Foundation Center. In releasing "Eye on the Trump Cabinet" as the newest feature of Foundation Center's Glasspockets website, our goal is track the charitable giving related to Cabinet nominees and their nonprofit Board service.

Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet

Eye on the Trump Cabinet shows that, taken as a whole, the Cabinet nominees are by no means strangers to philanthropy.

There has been a lot of speculation among philanthropic foundations about what the new Administration might mean for the sector. Will lower tax rates reduce charitable giving? If government retreats from social programs will foundations be expected to take up the slack? Will new regulations be introduced to somehow influence the kinds of priorities foundations support? At the extremes I have heard people assert: "these people (the new Administration) don't know anything about philanthropy," and fielded a question from a Danish reporter who wanted to know if the controversy over the Clinton and Trump foundations would lead to the end of transparency in the sector. But what do the data tell us?

Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet

"Eye on the Trump Cabinet" shows that, taken as a whole, the Cabinet nominees are by no means strangers to philanthropy. Between them, they are related to 25 different foundations. By "related" we mean foundations run by cabinet nominees or family members, in addition to ones in which they might have been affiliated or served as Board members. To learn more about those foundations, click on the links to their profiles in Foundation Directory Online and their 990 tax returns to learn about their operating expenses, specific grants and investments. Similarly, the data show that Cabinet nominees have served on the boards of nearly 50 nonprofit organizations focusing on education, veterans' affairs, health, and children, to mention a few.

Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet

Through this lens, perhaps most notable among the Cabinet nominees is Betsy DeVos, someone who comes from a strong family tradition of philanthropy and has a significant foundation (the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation) together with her husband. Moreover, until recently, she served as Board Chair for the Philanthropy Roundtable, a membership organization of foundations and donors that is a critical part of the infrastructure that upholds institutional philanthropy. Among the core beliefs of the Roundtable are that philanthropic freedom is essential to a free society and that voluntary private action offers solutions for many of society's most pressing challenges.

Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet

Foundations and nonprofits cannot (and should not) take the place of government primarily because their resources, while significant, are dwarfed by federal and state budgets in addition to those of the business sector. On the contrary, their limited resources are valuable precisely because it is their non-profit, independent status that gives them the freedom to innovate, take risks, support controversial causes, stick with tough challenges for the long term, and provide core support to critical societal institutions.

Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet

The relationship between government and the philanthropic sector can be one of collaboration, disagreement, or both, but it has been part of the fabric of American democracy for more than 100 years. Foundation Center, itself a nonprofit, was born in 1956 out of McCarthy-era hearings accusing foundations of supporting un-American activities. The sector's response was to create Foundation Center as a trusted public information service that could prove it had nothing to hide. We believe that transparency will, in the long run, always prove its value. How philanthropic is the new Administration? Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet, come to your own conclusions, wait, watch, and, above all, participate.

-- Brad Smith

About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

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