Transparency Talk

Category: "GrantCraft" (5 posts)

Creating a Culture of Learning: An Interview with Yvonne Belanger, Director of Evaluation & Learning, Barr Foundation
November 8, 2018

Yvonne Belanger is the director of learning & evaluation at the Barr Foundation and leads Barr's efforts to gauge its impact and support ongoing learning among staff, grantees, and the fields in which they work.

Recently, Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center, interviewed Belanger about how creating a culture of learning and openness can improve philanthropy. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.


YvonneGlassPockets: More and more foundations seem to be hiring staff with titles having to do with evaluation and learning. You’ve been in this role at the Barr Foundation for just about a year, having come over from a similar role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Why do you think roles like this are on the rise in philanthropy, and what are your aspirations for how greater capacity for evaluation and learning can benefit the field?

Yvonne Belanger: I think the spread of these roles in strategic philanthropy comes from increasing recognition that building a stronger learning function is a strategic investment, and it requires dedicated expertise and leadership. My hope is that strong evaluation and learning capacity at Barr (and across the philanthropic sector generally) will enable better decisions and accelerate the pace of social change to make the world more equitable and just.

GP: What have been your priorities in this first year and what is your approach to learning? More specifically, what is Barr’s learning process like, what sources do you learn from, how do you use the learnings to inform your work?

YB: At Barr, we are committed to learning from our efforts and continuously improving. Our programmatic work benefits from many sources of knowledge to inform strategy including landscape scans, academic research, ongoing conversations with grantees and formal site visits, and program evaluations to name a few. During this first year, I have been working with Barr’s program teams to assess their needs, to sketch out a trajectory for the next few years, and to launch evaluation projects across our strategies to enhance our strategic learning. Learning is not limited to evaluating the work of our programs, but also includes getting feedback from our partners. Recently, we were fortunate to hear from grantees via our Grantee Perception Report survey, including specific feedback on our learning and evaluation practices. As we reflected on their responses in relation to Barr’s values and examples of strong practice among our peers, we saw several ways we could improve.

GP: What kinds of improvements are you making as a result of feedback you received?

YB: We identified three opportunities for improvement: to make evaluation more useful, to be clearer about how Barr defines success and measures progress, and to be more transparent with our learning.

  • Make evaluations more collaborative and beneficial to our partners. We heard from our grantees that participating in evaluations funded by Barr hasn’t always felt useful or applicable to their work. We are adopting approaches to evaluation that prioritize grantee input and benefit. For example, in our Creative Commonwealth Initiative, a partnership with five community foundations to strengthen arts and creativity across Massachusetts, we included the grantees early in the evaluation design phase. With their input, we modified and prioritized evaluation questions and incorporated flexible technical assistance to build their capacity for data and measurement. In our Education Program, the early phase of our Engage New England evaluation is focused on sharing learning with grantees and the partners supporting their work to make implementation of these new school models stronger.
  • Be clearer about how we measure outcomes. Our grantees want to understand how Barr assesses progress. In September, we published a grantee guide to outputs and outcomes to clarify what we are looking for from grantees and to support them in developing a strong proposal. Currently, our program teams are clarifying progress measures for our strategies, and we plan to make that information more accessible to our grantees.
  • Share what we learn. To quote your recent GrantCraft Open for Good report, “Knowledge has the power to spark change, but only if it is shared.” To maximize Barr’s impact, we aim to be #OpenForGood and produce and share insights that help our grantees, practitioners, policymakers, and others. To this end, we are proactively sharing information about evaluation work in progress, such as the evaluation questions we are exploring, and when the field can expect results. Our Barr Fellows program evaluation is one example of this practice. We are also building a new knowledge center for Barr to highlight and share research and reports from our partners, and make these reports easier for practitioners and policymakers to find and re-share.

GP: Clearly all of this takes time and resources to do well. What benefits can you point to of investing in learning and knowledge sharing?

YB: Our new Impact & Learning page reflects our aspiration that by sharing work in progress and lessons learned, we hope to influence nonprofits and other funders, advance field knowledge, inform policy, and elevate community expertise. When you are working on changing complex systems, there are almost never silver bullets. To make headway on difficult social problems we need to view them from multiple perspectives and build learning over time by analyzing the successes – and the failures - of many different efforts and approaches.

GP: Barr’s president, Jim Canales, is featured in a video clip on the Impact & Learning page talking about the important role philanthropy plays as a source of “risk capital” to test emerging and untested solutions, some of which may not work or fail, and that the field should see these as learning opportunities. And, of course, these struggles and failures could be great lessons for philanthropy as a whole. How do you balance this tension at Barr, between a desire to provide “risk capital,” the desire to open up what you are learning, and reputational concerns about sharing evaluations of initiatives that didn’t produce the desired results?

YB: It’s unusual for Foundations to be open about how they define success, and admissions of failure are notably rare. I think foundations are often just as concerned about their grantees’ reputation and credibility as their own. At Barr we do aspire to be more transparent, including when things that haven’t worked or our efforts have fallen short of our goals. To paraphrase Jim Canales, risk isn’t an end in itself, but a foundation should be willing to take risks in order to see impact. Factors that influence impact or the pace of change are often ones that funders often have control over, such as the amount of risk we were willing to take, or the conceptualization and design of an initiative. When a funder can reflect openly about these issues, these usually generate valuable lessons for philanthropy and reflect the kind of risks we should be able to take more often.

GP: Now that you are entering your second year in this role, where are the next directions you hope to take Barr’s evaluation and learning efforts?

YB: In addition to continuing and sustaining robust evaluation for major initiatives across our program areas, and sharing what we’re learning as we go, we have two new areas of focus in 2019 – people and practices. We will have an internal staff development series to cultivate mindsets, skills, and shared habits that support learning, and we will also be working to strengthen our practices around strategy measurement so that we can be clearer both internally and externally about how we measure progress and impact. Ultimately, we believe these efforts will make our strategies stronger, will improve our ability to learn with and from our grantees, and will lead to greater impact.

 

To Serve Better, Share
May 3, 2018

Daniela Pineda, Ph.D., is vice president of integration and learning at First 5 LA, an independent public agency created by voters to advocate for programs and polices benefiting young children.

This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

Daniela Pineda Photo 2We share ideas freely on Pinterest, we easily give our opinions on products on Amazon and we learn from “how-to” videos on YouTube from the comfort of our homes. We even enjoy sharing and being creative by pulling ideas and concepts together.

Often, this is not what happens once we step foot in the office. We may find ourselves more reluctant to embrace sharing what works, learning what doesn’t and then applying these lessons to our work. It’s hard to speak about how things didn’t turn out as expected. It is as if we are saving the treasure of our knowledge for a rainy day, as if it’s a limited resource.

I believe in the power of being #OpenForGood, using knowledge to improve philanthropic effectiveness, in our case, to help create more opportunities and better outcomes for young children.

That’s why I am delighted to participate in a new how-to guide that was just released this week by sharing examples from our journey to opening up our knowledge at First5 LA. As part of Foundation Center’s #OpenForGood movement, the new GrantCraft guide Open for Good: Knowledge Sharing to Strengthen Grantmaking provides tips and resources, including strategies for knowledge sharing. Everyone benefits when organizations strengthen their knowledge sharing practices by enhancing organizational capacity and culture, and by understanding how to overcome common hurdles to sharing knowledge.  

“We can achieve more collectively and individually by sharing information and creating knowledge.”

As a public entity, First 5 LA is uniquely positioned to share knowledge with the field. Our mandate to be transparent serves as a powerful launchpad for sharing knowledge. For example, in our work with communities across Los Angeles County, we work to elevate the voices and perspectives of parents to leaders and lawmakers.

When we create opportunities for parents and policymakers to hear from each other, we are moving beyond a transparency requirement to foster more nuanced conversations on how we can all help improve outcomes for kids.

No matter your type of organization or mission -- foundations, nonprofit, government or business, we can achieve more collectively and individually by sharing information and creating knowledge.

Sharing information about what has worked, what hasn’t, and being open to learning lessons from others is a skill that sharpens your thinking, benefits the field, and helps advance your own goals, while also benefiting those you serve.

We must be mindful of the many potential roadblocks to sharing in service of becoming more effective, both inside and outside of our own organizations. Among them: egos and a lack of humility; competition for resources; a lack of incentives to share; and a lack of awareness of what information is shared and what outcomes it produces.

Sharing Sharpens Your Thinking

Failing to see knowledge sharing as part of your job amounts to lost opportunity, lost time, and lost resources. Making the time to find out what others are doing is important. At a minimum, we can feel empowered by the simple knowledge that we aren’t the only ones dealing with the problems we face in our jobs. In a best case scenario, we can adapt that information to our context, and try new ways to do our jobs better.

Open For Good CoverThis notion really hit home for me from a very simple online search when I started a new role. Curious if others were also grappling with similar issues about how to effectively evaluate place-based work, I searched a few sites. In philanthropy, we are fortunate to have impressive open online repositories such as Foundation Center’s Issue Lab, where we can find loads of information.

Indeed, my search led to several pieces on lessons learned from funders of place-based work. I fortunately found a thoughtful report on the topic at hand. But what was most useful, beyond reading the insight gleaned, was that I was then able to reach out to one of the authors to learn exactly what it meant to let the evaluation design evolve with the initiative.

Based on this connection, I refined a step on our learning agenda process to ensure we set the expectation that community voices were consulted earlier, during the planning phase of the project. While we had already planned for inclusion, I learned what types of pitfalls to avoid when structuring community engagement on a long-term evaluation project.

Since reaching out to my colleague, I have continued to learn from him and a broader network of learning practitioners who also value sharing knowledge. This concept of reaching out to others and asking simple questions is simple, and yet so few make the time to do it.

The truth is, great ideas can come from anywhere: a conversation on a commuter train, a session at a conference, or results from a search engine. Sharing, and being open to new ideas, serves to sharpen thinking and can improve your ability to achieve your philanthropic to  goals.

Sharing Benefits the Field

At a more global level, to make an impact on society and change things for the better, share what you know, and be willing to adjust your approach based on what you learn. That’s the approach we embrace at First 5 LA.

This not only helps our organization in our mission, but it sets an example for other like-minded organizations to open their viewpoints on sharing their successes and failures.

“Don’t save your knowledge for a rainy day—it’s an unlimited resource!”

For example, we recently worked with an evaluation partner to restructure the scope of its engagement. This was difficult because the project had been in place for a long time and the restructuring resulted in a more narrow scope. The partner was disappointed that we determined only two of the four initially designed subprojects remained relevant to our work. It could appear we were no longer committed to learn about this investment.

By being open with them, we also heard about their own concerns that the data would be of sufficient quality to conduct rigorous analyses. We listened and came up with a joint approach  to reach out to a different entity to secure an alternative data source. This worked, and now the project has been refocused, new data was secured, and the partner saw firsthand that while the approach changed, we were still committed to learning together.

Sharing information and outcomes is essential to being influencers in our areas of expertise. And learning from others is essential to being assets within our fields. In this case, we landed on an alternative approach to leverage data, and we maintained a productive relationship with our partner. We plan to share this approach broadly so that it can spark new ideas and insights or confirm an approach among other grantmakers grappling with similar issues.

Once we as individuals, managers and organizations can distill and discern knowledge, we can apply it to our own important work for public good, and share it with others to help them with theirs.

Sharing Is a Skill

These sharing efforts should permeate your organization, beyond the C-suite. Leaders must lead by example and encourage staff to see themselves as gatherers – and contributors – of knowledge to their fields.

Ultimately, learning to share information is a skill. To do this, and to glean the best information from data includes sharing it with others both inside and outside of your organization.

But collecting reams of information will do us no good if we do not have a specific plan for the data, and then analyze what it means in a bigger universe – and for those we serve.

At First 5 LA, we take a very pragmatic approach to data collection. First, we work with our programs to identify the specific systems we are trying to impact. Once that is determined, we then create learning agendas, which are tools for us to prioritize the key learning questions that will help us know if we are making progress on behalf of kids in Los Angeles  County.

Our approach requires that we specify how we plan to use those data before we collect it. Data should be tied to specific learning questions.

We are proud of our work and approach to use learning as a strategy, and it is not always easy to let others benefit from what we learn the hard way.

But our work is not ultimately about a singular institution. And you don’t need to save your knowledge for a rainy day—it’s usually an unlimited resource! It’s about huddling under a shared umbrella in stormy weather, and basking together in the sunshine for the ones who need us the most. Those we serve.

--Daniela Pineda

Open Yourself Up to New Solutions
April 5, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Inside Innovation Funding event in person in San Francisco, or virtually via livestream in San Francisco.

(Christie George is the director of New Media Ventures, a mission-driven venture firm and donor collaborative supporting progressive startups.  New Media Ventures supports companies and organizations that – through the use of new media and technology – build advocacy movements, tell new stories and drive civic engagement.)

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.

Christie-George1-163x164

If you’ve been following the headlines since the 2016 election, you’ve probably thought about the growing polarization in our country. You may share my worry about filter bubbles and political echo chambers, or you might have recommitted to sparking conversations with friends across the aisle. At New Media Ventures (NMV), we see the same need in the funding world. From our perspective, most people fund people and organizations they already know, moving money through referrals and established networks. But if we’re going to solve the big problems facing our world, we need to move beyond our personal echo chambers.

As a mission-driven venture fund that invests in both for-profit and nonprofit startups, NMV stands with one foot in the venture capital world and one foot in philanthropy – driving change at the intersection of technology, media, and civic engagement. When we first got started, we found ourselves sourcing opportunities in all the traditional ways – using our personal networks and attending conferences – but we quickly realized that we needed to try something different to ensure that we were actually identifying new approaches to the problems we wanted to solve. In 2014, we launched the NMV Innovation Fund with two main goals: 1) increase the number of investable projects crossing our desks (our deal flow); and 2) break through the bias for “the usual suspects” to fund more diverse entrepreneurs.

In the simplest terms, the Innovation Fund is an open call for world-changing innovations. Twice a year, we ask our network, and our network’s network, and their networks (you get the idea: we cast a wide net) to send us the best opportunities they’ve seen for how technology can catalyze progressive change. This year, in response to our “Resist and Rebuild” Open Call, we received nearly 500 applications – a new record – and we are blown away by the creativity of the applicants.

“...If you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects.”

While it may sound overwhelming to sort through hundreds of applications, we have developed a methodology for doing this work efficiently.  This process includes recruiting a volunteer screening committee of funding peers, simplifying our application as much as possible, asking more detailed questions only to the applicants who rise to the top, and using a technology platform to easily manage all of the applications in one batch. Ultimately, New Media Ventures makes the final funding decision, but the screening committee is one of the most powerful aspects of the process – many heads are better than one – and working collaboratively with other funders allows us to leverage different domain expertise in evaluating opportunities. 

Here are two takeaways from our experience opening ourselves up to open calls, and the reasons why we hope other funders will consider similar approaches:

1) Big problems require new solutions (and diversity is not a “nice to have”). Funding exclusively through referrals can limit what funders see and increase the risk of confirmation bias – one of the reasons white men are so much more likely to get venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. By having an open and transparent application process, heavily marketed to ensure we’re getting outside our own bubbles, we’ve made a tremendous
impact on the diversity of our portfolio. Our website, blog, social media platforms, and partners broadcast details about the open call, allowing us to
reach new audiences who may be deterred by less transparent philanthropic opportunities. We’re proud that 65% of Innovation Fund applicants have New Media Ventures logoat least one female and/or trans founder, and 30% have at least one person of color on the founding team. We still have a long way to go, but by comparison 8% of venture capital goes to women founders and 13% to founders of color.

However, focusing on diversity is not a “nice to have” and it’s not just about the numbers – it’s a core part of our strategy. Our societies and systems are facing entrenched problems, and solving them will require new and bold solutions. We need all hands on deck. Women, trans people, and leaders of color have much-needed perspectives and expertise, but often lack access to capital, networks, and traditional philanthropy. For example, news platform Blavity, founded by a young black woman, has grown to reach 7 million readers by creatively combining pop culture content with thoughtful coverage of race and gender issues. We might never have identified this opportunity were it not for our open call.

2) Less control over outcomes leads to more welcome surprises. When funders issue a request for proposals (RFP), we essentially define the terms of the discussion: we’ve often developed a strategy, and we’re looking for organizations to execute that strategy. Unlike a traditional RFP, the Innovation Fund Open Call process has very broad parameters by design. We’ve found this requires us to be comfortable with uncertainty and develop the humility to stay in a learning mindset. The approach isn’t without risks. What if you open the gates for a broad range of applicants, and don’t find anything you want to fund? What if you keep your parameters flexible and only get applications that aren’t in your wheelhouse? But with careful planning and a good process, we have developed strategies to mitigate the risks, and find we gain real value from being able to scan the field and identify gaps as well as opportunities. It has paid off in delightful and unexpected ways.

For many of our portfolio organizations, NMV is their first institutional funder, and our early investment gives our grantees the validation and runway they need to go on to great things: CoWorker.org hosted the Summit on Worker Voice with President Obama; Blavity went on to participate in 500 Startups; Vote.org got into Y Combinator and scaled up quickly to send SMS voting reminder messages to more than 1 million people in swing states leading up to the election. And that’s just a few examples.

To sum it up, if you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects. If boosting innovation is one of your goals, we recommend starting small and collaborating with others to share the work. Consider carving out a portion of your grantmaking budget to fund projects selected through an open process, and remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. NMV and other similar groups have developed deep expertise around open calls and we’re excited to partner with other funders. In fact, we did just that when we worked with the Pluribus Project on a democracy-focused open call last year.

So go ahead, open up and let yourself be surprised. It worked for us.

--Christie George

 

From Early Stage Funding to Lasting Impact: The Venture Philanthropy Approach to Funding Innovation
February 1, 2017

(Christy Chin, Managing Partner at Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation [DRK], is instrumental in finding, funding and supporting DRK entrepreneurs, as well as cultivating and engaging DRK’s network of donor partners. As a venture philanthropy firm, DRK provides critical early stage capital to social enterprises tackling some of society's most challenging issues.)

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.

Christy Chin Photo - DRKWow! How time flies by when a partnership works so well.  As I prepared for my final Watsi board meeting, I reflected on how much Chase and his team had accomplished and what a joy it is to be part of their quest to make healthcare accessible to all. 

In July 2013, we first met Chase Adam.  It was only a few days after he had pitched Watsi, the first nonprofit to be accepted into Y-Combinator.  In no time, Ron Conway, Tim and Billy Draper were urging DRK to take a look at Watsi.  Chase was ready to make the case for Watsi to be in the DRK portfolio, and he had a few questions of his own.  From the first meeting, there was a constructive and respectful exchange because we were aligned on the end goal – healthcare for all.  As a venture philanthropy firm, DRK conducts rigorous due diligence, not unlike the way in which a venture capital firm evaluates a for-profit investment.  These are our key questions:

Is it addressing an important social issue?

Definitely. A large percentage of our work at DRK is focused on global health, so we know that access to medical care, especially surgical treatments, is a critical problem.

Watsi, the first global crowdfunding platform for medical treatments, leverages scalable technology to solve a substantial need for patients abroad.

Chase’s commitment to radical transparency was distinctive. From the very beginning, Watsi allowed anyone and everyone to see how the money was moving and how the patients’ treatment, with their consent, was progressing.  Transparency of funding increased accountability from the moment a patient’s profile was shared to the delivery of the medical procedure. There was an elegance to Watsi that was extremely appealing.  

“ We firmly believe that multi-year, unrestricted funding is precious capital that nonprofits need to build organizational capacity.”

Is the solution being proposed likely to create meaningful change?

Yes, early results were promising.  In the first seven months after launch, Watsi processed more than 3,700 donations and funded medical treatments for more than 250 patients abroad. DRK has seen many success stories of how technology can enable rapid transformation of an ecosystem, and we truly believe in the power of technical innovation to make an impact on vulnerable populations.

Does the leadership team have potential?

Even though Watsi was still in its early stages, I was confident that Chase had what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. His passion for the mission was contagious, and he was clearly a resource magnet. Chase was able to attract both financial and human capital to support his vision.  

Is the solution scalable?

At the time, Watsi was already operating across 13 countries and working diligently to identify new partners to scale this model. Today, Watsi operates in 24 countries globally.

DRK bet on Chase in 2013 because we saw the potential for this model to dramatically shift the way governments and institutions fund healthcare treatments abroad, with real-time data collection and complete transparency. I had the privilege of joining Watsi’s board for those three years; DRK requires a DRK representative serve on all grantee boards. As part of DRK’s portfolio support and board service, we openly share our networks to help connect our entrepreneurs with people we believe can catalyze their efforts. In return, we ask for a three-year projection of the organization’s metrics and milestones that demonstrate the impact the entrepreneur hopes to achieve while s/he is an active member of the DRK portfolio. We also expect that the entrepreneur will regularly engage with DRK through written progress updates and in-person check-ins, as well as ongoing conversations with the board representative and, as needed, other key members of our finance, operations, and development team.  

I was fortunate to be joined on the Watsi board by Premal Shah, President of Kiva (an early DRK grantee), and experienced firsthand the power of the DRK network coming full circle.  In December, as my final board meeting with Watsi approached, I reflected on what made Watsi a great example of why we at DRK are so passionate about our work and strongly believe in this investment approach.  

DRK stacked logoDRK was founded in 2002 by Bill Draper and Robin Richards, two highly successful venture capitalists who chose to leverage their success in the venture capital world, applying their skills, expertise, and resources to solve complex social issues. DRK’s venture philanthropy model has been shaped by Bill and Robin’s legacy – we find, fund, and support early stage social entrepreneurs whose ideas have the potential to drive systems-level change.

Since our founding, we’ve raised $110 million in private capital and funded over 100 social enterprises – and we’re aiming to double that number over the next five years. We seek out entrepreneurs with qualities that we know are critically important – vision, energy, determination, courage, passion, and empathy. Our entrepreneurs are tackling important challenges across the globe, including healthcare, education, social justice, poverty alleviation, and the environment.

In the 15 years that DRK has been involved in this work, we’ve learned some powerful lessons that we hope to share with the funding community.  We firmly believe that multi-year, unrestricted funding is precious capital that nonprofits need to build organizational capacity.

We’ve also learned that handing over grant dollars alone isn’t enough. At DRK, the biggest difference we can make for our grantees is providing them with unrelenting support and serving as an advocate on behalf of their organizations.  We’re one of the first institutions to believe in their vision, and we never stop asking the tough questions. As a team, we’ve developed pattern recognition from sitting on many diverse boards and have gained a deep understanding of the challenges our entrepreneurs are likely to face. However, there is always a level of risk we have to account for, and not every DRK portfolio organization becomes a successful endeavor. We are incredibly fortunate to have a supportive board and a community of donor partners that not only accept, but encourage our team to take those risks and explore new possibilities with the potential for great impact.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of our entrepreneurs’ efforts across the globe, and I encourage you to take a moment to visit DRK’s website (www.drkfoundation.org) to learn more. For any institutions interested in exploring the venture philanthropy model, please contact us and we would be more than happy to share our learnings. We have seen the difference that early-stage funding can make for social entrepreneurs. I hope the next time your organization comes across an entrepreneur like Chase, an extraordinary leader with a big idea, you too will make that bet.

--Christy Chin

 

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

 

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  • 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."

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